The Olympic Torch Relay and its Nazi Roots

Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book,
Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli igniting the Sacred Olympic Flame at the Temple of Zeus, from the book, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency”

On August 21, 1964. the Priestesses of the ancient Temple of Zeus in Athens lit the Sacred Olympic Flame in a bowl using the rays of the sun. The torch was then transported to the site of the Ancient Olympics, where King Constantine II of Greece waited for it with IOC President Avery Brundage and Daigoro Yasukawa, President of the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee. Chief Priestess, Aleca Katselli lit the Olympic Torch from the sacred flame, handing it to the King, who handed it to the first runner, George Marcellos, who was the Greek 110-yard hurdle champion. And off he went, initiating the torch on a multi-country, multi-continent relay ending in the National Stadium in Tokyo.

Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.
Greek hurdler, George Marcello, takes the first leg of the Torch Relay, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency.

There is no other way to describe this ceremony – except that it feels Olympian.

This ceremony, wrapped in myth and ceremony, actually emerged out of Nazi Germany. Joseph Goebbels, who was Adolph Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda from 1933, saw the 1936 Berlin Olympics as an opportunity to legitimize the German way in the eyes of the world, that life with Germany, under Germany, was good and glorious. And so Goebbels formed an organizing committee inside his propaganda ministry with the mission to extract, as Daniel Brown wrote in his brilliant book, Boys in the Boat, “the maximum propaganda from the games. No opportunity was to be overlooked, nothing taken for granted.”

Brown went on to write, “at one of those meetings, one of Goebbels’ ministers proposed an entirely new idea – a potent bit of imagery designed to underscore what the Third Reich saw as its ancestral roots in ancient Greece – a torch relay to carry a flame from Olympia in Greece all the way to Berlin.”

And so since 1936, the Olympic Torch Relay has been a permanent fixture in the ritual of the Olympic Games.

See this short clip of the first Olympic torch carried into the Olympic Stadium, from the famed filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, and her movie, Olympia.