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The Olympic Flame

Fire was sacred in Greek mythology. At the ancient Games, a sacred flame burned at the altar of Zeus throughout the competition. This legacy comes alive every four years when the ancient flame is rekindled for a new Olympiad.

Above: The Olympic flame being kindled
at ancient Olympia

Sacred Fire in Antiquity
The tradition of lighting an Olympic flame comes from the ancient Greeks. During the ancient Olympic games, a sacred flame was lit from the sunís rays at Olympia, and stayed lit until the Games were completed. The sacred fire burned in the Prytaneion (a banquet hall and administrative building). This flame was used as a source to light the fires on all the other altars in the sanctuary.

In modern times, the Olympic flame was first lit during the opening ceremony of the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam.

The Birth of the Relay
The idea for the torch relay may have been inspired by an ancient Olympic torch relay event (lampadedromia), in which the winner was awarded the honor of lighting the sacred flame. The Nazis adopted this idea for their own purpose: At the 1936 Games in Berlin, they proposed that a flame be lit in Greece and transported to Berlin via torch relay. The idea was embraced and continued at each subsequent Olympic games.

From Olympia...
The lighting ceremony takes place in the sanctuary of Altis in Olympia, Greece. A symbolic "prothiereia," or high priestess of the holy temple, kindles the fire from the rays of the sun with a concave mirror (see photo above). She then passes the blazing torch, together with a symbolic olive branch from the sanctuary of Altis, to the first torch-bearer (lambadidromos). From here, the torch is passed from runner to runner until it reaches Athens.

...to Athens...
The torch is carried to the historic Panathenaic stadium in Athens. This marble stadium was built for the first revived Olympic games in 1896. It is here that the Greek Olympic Committee delivers the flame to a representative of the hosting country. The Olympic flame is then carried from Athens to the city in which the Olympic games are to be held.

...to the Games
The last runner carries the torch into the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony. The flame is then lit from the torch and burns continuously until it is extinguished during the closing ceremony.

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