The Olympic Flame: from Custom to Controversy



The torch lighting ceremony is one that has existed since the ancient Olympics. This ceremony was much less complex than that of today’s. While we now have thousands of runners, back up flames, “flame attendants’ and have even sent the flame through a radio wave, the original ceremony consisted of the lighting of a flame which would be maintained for the duration of the games. It was not until the controversial Berlin Olympics of 1936 that the running of the torch was introduced to the ceremony. It was decided then that a torch should be lit in Athens and escorted to the hosting country , by whatever means possible (this is where the sending of a flame via radio wave came from), to ignite the Olympic flame.

The original purpose of the lighting ceremony was to remember the theft of Zeus’ fire by Prometheus. Perhaps the controversial theme of theft should have been a good indication of the bumpy road ahead for the flame ceremony. The first bump in the road occurred in the 1930’s when people worldwide showed their distain for the Nazi regime by protesting the Berlin Olympics. Because it was the Nazi’s who introduced the running of flame, protests occurred at later Olympic flame ceremonies to demonstrate the disapproval of maintaining a tradition that was created by such an extremely fascist regime.

Unfortunately, this years path for the Olympic flame has been another difficult one. With the upcoming 2008 Olympics in Beijing, protesters have been doing their best to raise awareness about the human rights violations occurring in China. Specifically, they are trying to bring attention to the horrible atrocities taking place in Tibet. The protests have caused many of the flame running ceremonies to be canceled or cut short. Protectors in Paris managed to extinguish the flame four times, forcing the runners to cut their journey short and return the flame to a safe place. Although, the disruption of the flame ceremony has been criticized by some, it has also been extremely effective, gaining worldwide publicity and raising awareness about the situation in China.

Despite the many difficulties the flame has encountered, it is still associated with many great things. For some it shows years of tradition occurring over and over again, for others it embodies the sense of accomplishment associated with making it to the games. It demonstrates the interconnectedness of the world, as we come together to send a flame from one country to another. It has seen many triumphant athletes and many dedicated protesters. It has traveled the world over, by foot, train, plane and radio wave. It has seen the winners and the losers, the smiles and the tears. It has seen people break records and people fall short. Whether it represents controversy or the convergence of the world, the flame has a long and important history. Perhaps we could learn from the flame and come together to accomplish a goal, after all is that not what sports is all about?

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