The Olympic Flame – A Brief History

The Olympic Flame, contrary to popular belief, has not always been a part of the Olympics’ opening ceremony. At the first Summer Olympics in 1896, lighting the ceremonial flame in the Olympic cauldron was not included in the event’s proceedings. It became a tradition only in 1928 at the 9th Summer Olympics in Amsterdam and has been one of the most recognizable and renowned parts of the Olympic games. This flame symbolizes continuity between the modern and ancient versions of the Olympics.

The flame alludes to the Greek mythological tale of Prometheus. According to the legend, Prometheus was a Titan who stole fire from the Gods and gifted it to humanity. He was severely punished by Zeus, the chief of the Gods, as a result, however his actions are said to have helped the human civilizations thrive. The tradition of lighting a fire during the games began all the way back in Ancient Greece. However, as mentioned before it became a fixture in the modern Olympics format only in 1928. This concept was introduced by Jan Wils, the architect who designed the stadium for the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. The first person to light this flame was not an athlete but the first modern Olympic flame was lit by an employee of the Electric Company of Amsterdam at the Marathon Tower of the Olympic Stadium. The flame was introduced to the Winter Olympics in 1936 at the Winter Olympics that took place in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

The torch relay, a symbolic race which represents the journey of the Olympics from the past to the present, is a ceremonial event in which a torch is carried to the host of the current games from the original location of the Games in Olympia, Greece. The first well known athlete to light the cauldron was Paavo Nurmi at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. He was a nine-time Olympic champion. This is a tradition that has stuck ever since with Naomi Osaka, currently the world’s no.1 tennis player, lighting the fire in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics which were postponed to 2021. Some other notable athletes who have lit the aforementioned fire include boxing great Muhammad Ali, Steve Nash, Michael Platini and Wayne Gretzky. In the 2002 Winter Olympics the 1980 US Hockey team became the first sports team ever to perform the Olympic torch relay.

Even though popular belief dictates that the Olympic flame never goes out, the flame is reignited a few months before every Olympics in Greece after which the torch relay commences. During the course of the torch relay, the Olympic flame has gone out several times, because of which backup flames are put in place to reignite the flame. Hence, whenever the torch in the relay goes out, it is reignited with the use of these backup flames. When heavy rainstorms struck the 1976 Summer Olympics that were being held in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, the Olympic cauldron itself had been extinguished. The flame was reignited initially using a cigarette lighter as a makeshift replacement before a backup flame was used to properly light the cauldron’s flame. The flame remains lit for the entire stretch of the games. The only time the Olympic flame is officially scheduled and meant to be extinguished is at the closing ceremony of each Olympics.

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