Running a stade in Greece
A picture of a stade in Greece, on my tour of Europe in August, 1985
It was the first week of August, 1985. I was in Greece. And it was hot.

On a tour of Europe with some 50 American students ranging in age from 15 to 50, I was tired after half a day in a boat and buses. We had left Corfu, where we got about the beautiful resort island on Vespas, caressed by cool breezes and enchanting vistas. When we arrived in Delphi, close to midnight, the camping grounds were not ready to receive us, so we slept on a gravel lot.

Delphi was home to the Oracle, a priestess of Pythia who consulted to the rich and famous from the 7th century BC to the 4th century BC. But we didn’t visit the Oracle. Perhaps, hot and tired, I didn’t care. We did visit an ancient sports stadium, where the professor leading this band of students arranged foot races for us.

In ancient Greece, the most common foot race was a stade, which is about 200 yards (180 meters), and which was the length of a stadium. Our professor had us race the length of the stadium…and back…essentially the length of four soccer pitches…in the August mid-day sun. Two of our number passed out. I don’t recall my race. Maybe I passed out too.

Our mighty tour leader, Prof. Emmanuel Fenz, cheering us on.
But if I had known then what I knew now, I would have been ecstatic to be there! This was Greece – the birthplace of the Olympics. And Delphi was home to one of four athletic competitions, collectively regarded as the Panhellenic Games:

  • The Pythian Games: based in Delphi, the Pythian Games were held in honor of Apollo every four years – this was the location where Apollo was said to have killed a monstrous python.
  • The Nemean Games: based in the northeastern part of the Peloponnese, Nemea is where the Nemean Lion lurked, slayed by Heracles; the Nemean Games were held biannually in honor of Zeus.
  • The Isthmian Games: named after the Isthmus of Corinth, a narrow strip of land which connects Peloponnese with the rest of Greece, the Isthmian Games were like the Nemean Games,  held the same two years as the Pythian Games; these games were held in honor of Poseidon.
  • The Olympian Games: located in an area called Olympia, near the town of Elis on the Peloponnese peninsula, this was the first of the four quadrennial Games, starting in the 8th century BC. Of the four Games, this was the biggest and most prestigious. While the Olympian Games are dedicated to Zeus, it is at the Temple of Hera where the custom of igniting the Olympic flame takes place.

The order of these Games were as follows:

  1. Olympian Games
  2. Isthmian Games
  3. Nemean Games
  4. Isthmian Games

Over time, the word “olympiad” became a unit of time, a four-year period, a historical point of reference no doubt noted by the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin.

For a wonderful modern-day journey of these four locales, read this New York Times article, An Olympic Odyssey: Where the Games Began, by Bill Hayes.

Katselli and sacred flame 1
Aleka Katselli creating the sacred flame, from the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Service

Aleka Katselli was 12 when she was handpicked to be a priestess of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece. She was with the High Priestess, Koula Prastika, who lit the first sacred flame for the Olympics in 1936, which then travelled by torch to Berlin, where it was used to light the Olympic cauldron – the first time this ceremony had taken place.

Katselli and sacred flame 4
Katselli holding the sacred flame aloft, from the magazine Orimpiku Tokyo Taikai Tokushyuu, No. 2, by Tokyo Shimbun

As a child in 1936, Katselli remembers little. But in 1956, Katselli was 28 when she became high priestess, and was responsible for generating a flame from the sun, and making sure this sacred flame was passed to the long line of torch bearers who would transport the gift of Prometheus to a land that would embark on world peace through sport.

For Katselli, when she created the flame for the 1956 Melbourne Games, she viscerally understood how sacred the moment was, and how she felt the presence of Zeus, who ruled as king of the gods on Mount Olympus. Katselli in fact felt that at that moment, her body had transubstantiated, and that even before lighting the torch, she was glowing both in body and soul.

Katselli and sacred flame 3
From the book Tokyo Olympiad 1964, Kyodo News Agency

Katselli also created the sacred flame that travelled throughout EurAsia to Tokyo in 1964, and was invited by the Tokyo organizing committee to attend the Tokyo Games. As she explained to The Mainichi Daily News in an article from October 15, 1964:

Lighting the Olympic flame is one of the most sacred moments of my life. What is important is to believe, to believe in the bottom of your heart that what I do at this moment is very sacred. You must believe. Especially here in Japan, when they say the flame is sacred, they really believe it as I believe it.

She told The Mainichi Daily News that the ceremony in Olympia is “not just a dance. It is a solemn walk which must be choreographed with the utmost dignity, grace and precision. Participants begin rehearsing the steps one week before the actual ceremony.”

It is likely that Katselli appeared that she truly believed the flame to be sacred. High Priestesses are often from the acting profession so that they can display a regal bearing worthy of channeling spirits from the beginning of time.

In fact, Katselli was a prominent actress in Greece, starring in the film of the 1962 Greek Tragedy, Electra, written by Euripedes, which could be considered base material for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Katselli portrayed Queen Klytemnestra, who conspired with King Aegisthos to murder her previous husband, King Agamemnon.

Katselli also had a role in the 1960 film, Never on Sunday, which many Olympians at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics would have been familiar with. Produced for the film of the same name, “Never on Sunday”, would win an Oscar for Best Original Song, the first ever for a foreign-language film, and would go on to become a pop classic covered by Bing Crosby, Lena Horne, Doris Day and Andy Williams among many others. Enjoy the version below by Connie Francis.


Rio Olympic Torch closed and open

The torch for the 1964 Tokyo Games was as plain and utilitarian as can be – black handle and thin silver metal cylinder. Over the years, the torch has taken all shapes and forms, with the Winter Games torches in particular tending to the gaudy. But the Rio torch, which will embark on a 3-month journey through Brazil, is both simple and colorful, thanks to an innovative design.

A picture of me with a replica of the 1964 Summer Games torch.
The Rio torch starts off as a narrow cone, completely white save for the Rio Olympic emblem. As Wired Magazine describes it, “with a satin aluminum finish, it looks almost clinical in its simplicity.”

But, as Wired continues to explain, something happens when you activate the torch and ready it for the flame exchange, or “the kiss” as it is called.

“Then you open it. At the moment of the kiss—the handoff from one torch bearer to another—the runner will turn a knob to ignite the gas valve, which will simultaneously cause the top of the white cone to expand, revealing five ribbons of bright, metallic colors.”

Click on this link to see a GIF showing this transformation.

The ribbons of gray, blue and green represent the ground, sea and mountains of Brazil, capped off by the golden top of the torch, which represents the sun.

The Olympic flame had begun its journey on April 21, born of a spark created by the sun in a parabolic mirror, housed on site at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece. Starting today, May 3, the Rio torch will begin its relay through Brazil, where over 10,000 people will run with the torch for at least 200 meters, taking the flame through some 500 cities and towns across the vast South American nation.