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The (German) Origins of the Olympic Torch Relay

The (German) Origins of the Olympic Torch Relay

In advance of the Summer Olympics in London this summer, the Olympic flame is now being flown from Athens to the UK. The flame was lit using a mirror and the rays of the sun on May 10 in ancient Olympia in Greece, the site of the original games that were first held in 776 BCE. The flame briefly went out and had to be relit before being handed to the first torchbearer, Liverpool-born Greek world champion 10km swimmer Spyros Gianniotis, who then passed it onto 19-year-old Alexis Loukas, the first British torchbearer. For a week, the flame traveled 1,800 miles through Greece before being placed on a plane to the UK, where it will be borne for 8,000 miles before being brought to London.

The lighting of the flame and all the ceremony attached to it originate not in ancient Greece, but with the modern games and, in particular, with the Nazis’ brand of nationalist propaganda. The first time a flame was lit was at the modern Olympics in the Amsterdam 1928 summer games. The relay with the torch traveling on its way to the Olympic stadium originated with the 1936 summer games, held in Berlin.

As Max Fisher writes in The Atlantic, Carl Diem, the secretary general of the organizing committee of the Berlin games, created the torch relay. While he was a Nazi official, Diem, who did seek (unsuccessfully) to “more freely allow German Jews” to participate in the Olympics, cannot entirely be blamed for the “Nazi propaganda piece” that the relay has become:

Whether or not Diem meant it to, a torch relay fit neatly within Nazi propaganda. Beginning the relay in Greece and ending it roughly 1,500 miles away in Berlin reinforced the idea of a shared Aryan heritage between the ancient power and the new one. It also hinted at Hitler’s idea of a natural, civilizational progression from the Greek Empire to the Roman to the German. And the route happened to go through Czechoslovakia, where the stream of Nazi propaganda that surrounded it inspired some members of the ethnic German minority to clash with member of the Czech majority. Two years later, Hitler would invade and occupy part of Czechoslovakia, where he claimed the German minority was at risk.

Hitler also sponsored excavations at ancient Olympia, to lend further weight to the image of Germany as the “heir and caretaker of the ancient powers.”

Fisher emphasizes that the lighting ceremony today has “nothing to do with Nazis or with Hitler’s ethnic nationalism” and that the torch lightning has been reconfigured into “a brighter message of friendly international cooperation.” But, noting the very modern origins of what many think is an ancient tradition, Fisher reflects on why, “for all of Hitler’s legacies we’ve excised from the world, this seems to be one contribution we’re comfortable maintaining.”

Bundesarchiv B 145 Bild-P017039, Berlin, Olympiade, Fackelläufer mit Feuer

The transformation of a ceremony invented by 1930s Germans into what too many people assume is an ancient Greek ceremony is worth highlighting at a time when relations between Germany and Greece are on edge. Just today, the Greek government said that German chancellor Angela Merkel has suggested that Greece hold a referendum on its membership of the eurozone.

The response from Greek politicians has been immediate and angry: Alexis Tsipras, head of the far-left Syriza coalition that has been winning support with its rejection of austerity, said that Merkel has grown used to treating Greece “like a protectorate.” Eva Kaili of the Socialist Party PASOK said that a referendum would be “ironic and … blackmail.”

Beneath the feel-good messages of the Olympics about international cooperation, unity and such lurk more than a few troubling realities as well as deep dissension.

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Photo of a torchbearer for the 1936 Olympics Games in Berlin by the Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

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1:46PM PDT on May 21, 2012

This story is supposed to make Greeks like the Germans??? Are you serious??? And one correction for you. Greeks have no bad feelings about the simpl egerman people who is misinformed by the media, but with their politicians (of both countries) who are mostly responsible for this mess!!!!
Another thing is that in ancient Greece there were no wars during the Olympic games... in modern history that was reversed!!! How civilized!!!

3:03PM PDT on May 20, 2012

Although its history is mired in Nazi past, there still is something uplifting bring the torch from Athens to the UK - two countries who were devastated by the Nazis.

1:18PM PDT on May 20, 2012


8:59AM PDT on May 20, 2012


6:44AM PDT on May 20, 2012


5:16AM PDT on May 20, 2012

It seems to me that bringing up the supposed Nazi origin of the torch ceremony does nothing to alleviate the tensions between Germany and Greece. In fact, for me, it just makes it worse.

We must never forget the lessons learned from the history of Nazi Germany but its time to stop pointing the finger at Germany and realize that the problems of nationalism, antisemitism and racism are global problems we must all face and remove from our hearts and minds.

4:52AM PDT on May 20, 2012

I'm glad I know the true history of it as a stickler for accuracy, but who cares if it was used as a piece of propaganda by a malevolent dictator? It is just a 'thing' to do. We need to stop giving the historical Nazis the power to determine what is and is not acceptable today.

3:12AM PDT on May 20, 2012

Using Rituals to transport political messages has been and is part of all societies. All have used it for their own ends and are using it. We in Germany have become a lot more careful about our nationalism than other coutries, which is due to our history. I am, frankly , getting tired of people finding links to fascism every time - seems a bit of a fish in the dream thing. It is like watching the rituals of the U.S. army and immediately going back to millions of dead Indians .....

2:35AM PDT on May 20, 2012

Thanks for the article.

1:14AM PDT on May 20, 2012

The Olympics suck anyway.

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