The hideous history behind Olympic torch relay

TOKYO — They’ll light the Olympic torch here Friday at the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Olympics.

Even though COVID-19 restrictions will cause it to take place at a scaled-down event inside a mostly empty stadium, the moment will likely serve as a moment of pride and excitement both here and around the globe.

The journey of the torch — from Greece to the Opening Ceremony, with stops around the host nation in between — is one of the most popular Olympic traditions.

Its creation, however, is nothing to celebrate.

The idea was hatched by an aide to Adolf Hitler in the run-up to the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. The Nazi leader wanted to link the Games’ past in ancient Greece with its present in Germany.

So he sought the healthiest, fittest young men who would represent his Aryan ideal to run a torch relay from Olympia, Greece to the German capital. Each young man would run a single kilometer. There were 3,422 in all.

A lit torch had glowed above the Games staged in Amsterdam (1928) and Los Angeles (1932) but those had been done on-site, not by transferring an actual flame from Greece. The tradition dates back to ancient Greece, where locals often lit torches to honor the gods.

The tradition of the Olympic torch relay is always a highlight of the Games, despite the ugly history behind its creation. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)
The tradition of the Olympic torch relay is always a highlight of the Games, despite the ugly history behind its creation. (Photo by Yuichi Yamazaki/Getty Images)

The route Hitler planned meandered for about 2,000 miles from Olympia through the cities and countrysides of Southeast and Central Europe — including the then-nations of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, as well as Bulgaria, Hungary and Austria. This was an area where Germany had considerable influence and sought to expand.

Hitler saw the torch relay as a sign of German power and perfection. He believed the sheer spectacle was a way to draw attention from locals when it passed through. This was old-school marketing.

“The Nazis knew a good propaganda symbol when they saw one,” wrote author Tony Perrottet in the book “The Naked Olympics.”

When the torch reached the homeland, its route was surrounded by pro-Nazi events that promoted nationalism and nationalistic pride. Some 50,000 Germans saluted its crossing of the border from Czechoslovakia. A major youth demonstration, complete with swastika-emblazoned flags, greeted it in Berlin.

“Hitler took considerable personal interest in the ritual, and pumped funds into its promotion: The Nazi propaganda machine covered the torch relay slavishly, broadcast radio reports from every step of the route, and filled the Games with the iconography of ancient Greek athletics,” Perrottet wrote.

The Games in Berlin were just the culmination of that process and that journey. They're recalled as Hitler using sport to promote his aggressive intentions. The Jewish Holocaust and World War II followed soon after.

The war cancelled the Games in 1940 and 1944, but when they returned in 1948, in a rebuilding London, Hitler’s idea persevered. The British decided to use it as a symbol of peace and unity among nations.

Despite its ugly history, the torch relay has continued ever since.

Most people love it despite the occasional controversy over the years — a corporate sponsor attached prior to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, protests against human rights violations prior to the 2008 Games in China.

The final relay, when the main torch over the Olympic Stadium is finally lit, is often one of the most iconic and memorable moments of the Games.

Muhammad Ali lighting up Atlanta in 1996 or archer Antonio Rebollo sending a fiery shot into the Barcelona sky in 1992 or Wayne Gretzky rolling through the streets of Vancouver in 2010 remain burned in Olympic history.

Japan will, no doubt, have something special.

It’s the rare thing that COVID can’t touch, and the culmination of a good idea that has outlasted its awful creator.

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