The Olympic flame

A few months before the modern Olympic games begin, the Olympic flame is lit in the ruins of ancient Olympia. In this solemn ceremony, executed by eleven women, the rays of the sun are caught in a parabolic mirror in order to light the torch. From Olympia the flame is transported to the host city of the games in a relay race, mostly by runners, but sometimes less conventional means of transportation are used. In 2000 the flame was even carried underwater by divers. During the opening ceremony the flame arrives in the Olympic stadion and when the games are finished it is extinguished.

The idea of the Olympic flame dates from 1928, when the Dutch architect Jan Wils designed a tower in which a flame burned continuously during the games in Amsterdam. The corresponding ceremony was developed by Carl Diem, a sports historian and organizer of the Olympic games of Berlin in 1936.

This ceremony is an invented tradition. It did not form a part of the ancient Olympic games, but it is inspired by ancient Greek traditions. On the altars of Greek sanctuaries a sacred flame was kept burning continuously. In some cities a torch race was held, in which the runners brought the sacred fire from one altar to another. This was not a contest at the Olympic games, but it existed at the Panathenaic games. According to Plutarch the holy fire could not be lit by another fire, when it had been extinguished accidently. A new, pure flame had to be created with mirrors. This inspired Diem when he designed the modern ceremony.

© KU Leuven, 2012