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History of the Olympic Torch

The Torch Relay in Ancient Times
Updated:2004-05-20

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    Fire is a sacred symbol dating back to prehistoric times. In ancient Greece it symbolized the creation of the world, renewal and light. It was also the sacred symbol of Hephaestus, and a gift to the human race from Prometheus, who stole it from Zeus. At the centre of every city-state in ancient Greece there was an altar with an ever-burning fire and in every home the sacred Flame burned, dedicated to Hestia, goddess of the family.

    Torch Relay races started in ancient Greece as religious rituals held at night. Soon they turned into a team athletic event, initially among adolescents, and further developed to become one of the most popular ancient sports. The enchanting power of fire was a source of inspiration. Sacred flames lit by the rays of the sun always burned in Olympia, in an altar dedicated to Hestia. Fire was ignited with the help of a concave mirror, which has the ability to concentrate the rays of the sun on a single spot. When the head priestess touched that point with the Torch, the Flame was lit.

    The Ancient Greeks held a "lampadedromia" (the Greek word for Torch Relay), where athletes competed by passing on the Flame in a relay race to the finish line. In ancient Athens the ritual was performed during the Panathenaia fest, held every four years in honour of the goddess Athena. The strength and purity of the sacred Flame was preserved through its transportation by the quickest means; in this case a relay of Torchbearers. The Torch Relay carried the Flame from the altar of Prometheus to the altar of goddess Athena on the Acropolis. Forty youths from the ten Athenian tribes had to run a distance of 2.5 kilometres in total.

    For the modern Olympic Games the sacred Flame is lit in Olympia by the head priestess, in the same way as in antiquity, and the ritual includes the athletes' oath. The Flame is then transmitted to the Torch of the first runner, and the journey of the Torch Relay begins ĘCits magic still touching people today.

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