Significance and Symbolism of the Olympic Torch

Molly Steckler
Significance and Passing of the Olympic Torch

Take a deep dive into the history of the Olympic Torch. Learn what the significance of fire is in ancient Greek mythology and discover how the tradition started in the first place.

Fire was significant in ancient Greek mythology. It continues to serve its relevance in the Olympic Torch from the opening of the Olympic Relay in Olympia, Greece to the closing ceremony of the Olympic games. But there is so much more to this historic ritual than many realize.

Discover the significance of fire in ancient Greek mythology and learn how the Olympic Torch became an important ritual for the Games in the first place.

A Brief History of the Olympic Torch

The ritual of the Olympic flame and the Olympic Torch Relay is a not-so-historic tradition of the Olympic Games first introduced during the 1928 Summer Olympics. The flame served as an homage to the significance of fire in ancient Greek mythology and, thus, the original Olympic Games in Greece.

Fire in Greek Mythology

Fire has divine connotations in ancient Greek mythology. The story about the Titan Prometheus is that he stole fire from the gods. The sacred fire was kept burning at the altar of Hestia, the goddess of hearth, during the celebration of the original Olympic Games in Greece. 

Reintroducing the Olympic Flame in 1928

The Olympic flame was reintroduced to the Olympics during the 1928 Summer Olympics set in Amsterdam. An employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam was appointed to light the flame at the Marathon Tower in the city’s Olympic Stadium.

What Is the Olympic Torch Relay?

The Olympic Torch Relay was not a tradition brought about from the ancient Olympic Games, but an idea introduced by Carl Diem during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

The project, in fact, was entirely funded and produced by the Nazis. (Hitler admired the ancient Greeks and believed the Nazis were their heirs.)

The flame was carried, by foot, over 2,000 miles from Olympia to Berlin’s Olympic Stadium at the opening of the Olympic Games.  

When the Summer Olympics were held again in London in 1948, the relay tradition was continued as a “relay of peace” following World War II.

Olympic history is filled with monumental moments for sports and athletes. Read about Four Awesome Moments in Olympic History.

The Olympic Torch Today

The Olympic Torch remains a symbol of the Olympics and a continued tradition through the three ceremonies held at each Olympics. Running remains a popular form of transportation for the torch, but other modes, like boats, railways, and buses, are now embraced.

The Major Ceremonies

  • Olympic Flame Lighting – The city of Olympia, Greece hosts this event a few months before the start of the Olympic Games. The High Priestess, followed by a group of priestesses, call upon Apollo, the god of light, to light the torch in front of the Temple of Hera. The sun reflects against a parabolic mirror to light strips of old camera film, which starts the flame. The official Olympic website livestreams the event.

  • Olympic Torch Relay – The Olympic Torch is brought from Olympia to the Panathenaiko in Athens for another ceremony, where the flame is officially presented to the host city. The Torch is then carried for several months, following a meticulously themed route, to the host city’s Olympic Stadium.
  • Olympic Cauldron Lighting – Upon arrival of the Olympic Torch to the host city, the final torchbearer lights the Olympic cauldron at the start of the Olympic Games. The cauldron remains lit for the duration of the Games.  

What Happens If the Olympic Torch Goes Out?

The Olympic Torch is uniquely designed for each Olympic Games. The official Olympic website lists a photo of every Olympic Torch used since 1936.

A fair share of mishaps have taken place during the Olympic Torch Relay, causing it to be extinguished. Thus, backups are always nearby. These backups contain fire from the original flame, assuring the Olympic cauldron flame traces back to the original ceremony in Olympia.

The torch also contains two flames: one larger and more visible orange flame and a smaller, blue flame inside that is protected from the weather.

The Tradition Lives On

The Olympic Torch remains an iconic symbol for the Olympic Games. The Olympic cauldron lighting that starts each Games reminds both viewers and athletes of the Greek tradition that started these very games.

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