Symbol of


Fire is powerfully symbolic. It’s a sign of resurrection and rebirth, of passion, as well as destruction and damnation! It is considered one of the four elements crucial to life – along with water, air and earth. Fiona McDonald looks at the Olympic torch relay.

It has travelled by camel, by plane, by American First Nation canoe. It’s been converted to a radio signal and beamed across continents – and then transformed into laser light to ignite a cauldron.

Fire is elemental. It’s mesmerising, inducing one to stare into its flickering depths with a fixed gaze, allowing the mind to head down unusual pathways of thought. Fire warms, it burns, it tempers steel and purifies too. It cremates bodies and scorches earth – but it also returns carbon to the soil, bringing forth new life and abundant growth.

The Olympic flame and torch are symbolic of the Olympic movement and signify the link between both the ancient Greek games and their modern equivalent, considered to be the pinnacle of athletic achievement.

The 2021 Olympic games are poignant because of both postponement, pandemic and the desire to overcome obstacles to stage the event in Japan. The lighting of the event flame is the pinnacle of the opening ceremony with the flame burning unceasingly until it is extinguished at the end of the contest’s closing ceremony.

Tradition dictates that the first torch is lit at Ancient Olympia in Greece before making its way to Athens for the symbolic handover to the host nation. The 2021 torch relay began its journey to Athens on March 12 before it was handed over to Tokyo officials at a ceremony at the Panathenaic stadium in Athens.

To be selected as one of the Olympic torch bearers is a singular honour.

The real relay of 121 days set off at the Japanese national training centre in the Fukushima prefecture on March 25. 2021 also marks the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan earthquake which caused massive devastation and loss of life in Fukushima – and the relay route was selected to showcase the recovery of the places most affected by the tragedy. How appropriate then that the theme of this particular Olympic relay is “Hope Lights Our Way”. The International Olympic Committee stated on its website: “In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it will additionally symbolise the light at the end of the current dark tunnel; a beacon of hope for the world in the run-up to the Tokyo games, themselves a symbol of the resilience, unity and solidarity of humankind.”

Tokyo is the final destination of the torch with it scheduled to arrive on July 9 after it has traversed all 47 prefectures nationwide. It will then be used to light the main cauldron at the opening ceremony of the games on July 23. Just who will have the honour of doing so remains a secret since this customarily goes to a famous athlete of the host nation. Who can forget Muhammad Ali lighting the flame at the commencement of the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia – or Cathy Freeman doing so in Sydney in 2000? (During that Aussie relay, the flame was famously converted to an underwater flare for a diver to traverse the Great Barrier Reef!)

Taken to extremes – ahead of the 2000 Olympic games held in Sydney, the “flame” was even swum over the Great Barrier Reef!

The first ever global relay was undertaken in 2004, ahead of the Greek games in Athens. The Olympic flame visited both Africa and South America for the first time. Four years later, it was once again trotted through all six continents but became something of a political hot potato with numerous protests against China’s human rights record. In France demonstrators were so vociferous that Chinese officials extinguished the flame twice, transporting it by bus in order to avoid the crowds. Similar demonstrations were held in San Francisco and in London. As a consequence the IOC decided in 2009 that the torch relay would in future only be held in the host country after the initial Greek leg to Athens.

And while there have been a few notable moments when the flame has been extinguished and relit by means of a handy lighter, officially there is always a back-up, ignited by the same Olympian source. Nowadays, there is a fail-safe redundancy feature. Each torch actually contains two flames: the visible yellow flame which is somewhat susceptible to wind and rain … and a smaller, hotter flame, a bit like a pilot light, that is hidden and protected inside the torch handle. And with so many different runners or bearers – up to a few thousand share the honour – each torch’s fuel lasts for around 15 minutes.

However, there’s no evidence that this was ever part of the historic sporting spectacle. As Christopher Klein wrote for a piece on the History Channel: “At a solemn ceremony in Olympia, Greece, on July 20, 1936, the searing rays of the midday sun, concentrated by a parabolic mirror, kindled the Olympic flame. Enveloped by ancient ruins and a dozen women dressed in spotless white tunics, shirtless Greek runner Konstantinos Kondylis dipped a torch into a burning cauldron, held the fire aloft in his right hand and jogged the first steps of what would be an epic 12-day overland relay to Berlin, host city of the 1936 summer games.”

While it might have appeared like a sacred, ancient Greek custom, full of pageantry and spectacle, it was – as Klein wrote, “actually a piece of modern political theatre carefully scripted and paid for entirely by Nazi Germany”.