OLYMPIA, Greece -- The Rio 2016 Olympic spirit officially caught fire Thursday with the lighting of the flame in ancient Olympia.
In an elaborate ceremony in the ruins of the Temple of Hera, an actress playing the role of “high priestess” kindled the flame using the rays of the sun in a concave mirror. She then carried the sacred fire into the same dusty stadium where athletes competed nearly 3,000 years ago in the ancient Olympic Games. The ritual concluded when the high priestess passed the flame to Lefteris Petrounias, a gymnastics world champion from Greece, to launch the Rio Olympic Torch Relay.
On Aug. 5, the flame will arrive in Rio where the final torchbearer – always a closely guarded secret – will ignite the cauldron in a manner that is also top-secret for the first Olympic Games in South America.
But first, the flame will spend a week traveling around Greece, including a dash across the aptly named Rio-Antirrio Bridge and a pass through a refugee camp. On April 27, the flame, which is always accompanied by a backup, will be handed over to Rio organizers in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, where the modern Games began in 1896.
The torch relay will then proceed to Switzerland to United Nations headquarters in Geneva and the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. On May 3, the flame will arrive in Brazil where the torch relay will go through 329 cities and towns in 95 days. More than 12,000 torchbearers will have the honor of carrying the flame, usually on short stints.
|Colorado Springs, Colorado, native Marlee Tate was the sixth torchbearer in the Rio relay.|
An American had the privilege of being the sixth torchbearer in the Rio relay. Marlee Tate of Colorado Springs, Colorado, one of the sister cities of Ancient Olympia, carried the flame about 100-150 meters.
Tate, 18, won an essay contest as part of the Young Champion Ambassador program. She wrote how Colorado Springs, hometown of the United States Olympic Committee and branded as Olympic City USA, and Ancient Olympia “have a similar heart and there’s a spirit of champions.”
Tate said when she received the flame from the previous torchbearer in what is known as the “kiss of torches,” “It was almost like I felt something light inside – maybe it was just adrenaline. And the running felt so much easier than I thought it would be. I’m so grateful to be here.”
However, her arm was tired. “The torch is a little heavier than you expect,” she said. “But the distance wasn’t too far.”
Five local people ran with her along with Nicholas Baldwin and Sofia Barnett, who were also finalists in the program.
While she could not attend the ceremony on Thursday, she saw the dress rehearsal. “The history is so rich,” Tate said. “It was just so beautiful to watch it unfold.”
Although inspired by the traditions of ancient Greece, the Olympic torch relay is only 80 years old. Carl Diem, a German sports administrator, came up with the idea in 1936 for the Berlin Games. According to the International Olympic Committee, the flame is a “manifestation of the positive values that man has always associated with the symbolism of fire,” and its purity is guaranteed by special way of lighting it with the sun’s rays.
The torch relay has been a part of the summer Games ever since and the flame has traveled in space, underwater, by satellite, by Pony Express and by camel.
In 1952, the Winter Games torch relay began with the original lighting ceremony in Norway at the hearth of Sondre Norheim’s birthplace, the founder of Telemark skiing. In 1956, the flame was lit in Rome, then the ceremony went back to Norway prior to the Squaw Valley 1960 Games. Since 1964, the Winter Games torch relay has begun in Olympia.
Although the high priestess sends up a prayer to Apollo, the god of the sun, the weather does not always cooperate. In 2006, the backup flame, lit in a rehearsal the day before the official ceremony, had to be used. Former high priestess Ino Menegaki said the audience gasped during the 2012 London flame lighting.
“We got the flame, and immediately after the sky went dark,” she said.
Menegaki began as a priestess in 1996 for the Atlanta torch relay, eventually graduating to high priestess. She was succeeded by Katerina Lehou, another well-known actress who presided over the Thursday ceremony.
And the gods were smiling on Olympia. The sun shone brightly, with the hot temperature eased by a breeze.
As the first torchbearer, Petrounias carried the colorful Rio torch in one hand and an olive branch symbolizing peace in the other. He made a trek to the nearby Coubertin Monument, where lies the heart of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games.
Petrounias then passed the flame to the first Brazilian torchbearer, two-time Olympic volleyball gold medalist Giovane Gavio.
“It’s really an amazing honor and an amazing moment in my life,” said Gavio.
He admitted before the ceremony that he was more nervous than when he was a competitive athlete. “I’m very nervous, but very happy,” Gavio said.
The ceremony was emotional for many of the participants and spectators who sat on the grassy banks just as their predecessors did many centuries ago. Several thousand people attended.
“This is the place where it all started 3,000 years ago,” said IOC president Thomas Bach, an Olympic fencing champion in 1976. “And having been an athlete, I imagine how the athletes must have felt 3,000 years ago going through the shadow of the tunnel and then entering into the sun and the stadium of ancient Olympia. I can do it as often as I want and it always gives me goose bumps.”
The ceremony also inspires the world and serves as a countdown to the Games, which are just over 100 days away.
“This Olympic flame, this ceremony is linking us with our past,” Bach said. “It’s linking us with the birthplace of the Olympic Games and the Olympic values. It’s reaching into the present and it gives us guidance for the future. This Olympic flame sends a message of hope and also of Olympic determination and encouragement.”
With Brazil besieged by political crisis, construction delays and fear of the Zika virus, the flame lighting ceremony is a time of celebration.
“We’re just full of anticipation to come to Brazil and to be welcomed by the warmth of the Brazilians and to share their passion for sport,” Bach said. “You see us very confident in general and on a day like this you see us even more confident and more emotional about these Games for Brazil.”
The design of the torch spotlights the individuality and creativity of the host city.
The Rio torch, according to organizers, “unites movement, innovation and Brazilian flavor” and is a “meeting of the traditional Olympic flame and the warmth of the Brazilian people throughout the country.”
For the first time, a torch has moving parts. The segments on the stark white torch open in a ripple design resembling the famous Copacabana promenade. They reveal colors of green, blue, gold and aqua on the torch. The colors represent not only the colors of the Brazilian flag, but ground, sea, mountains, sky, sun and “harmonious diversity, contagious energy and exuberant nature.”
The golden color of the sun at the top also stands for the ultimate achievement at the Games, a gold medal.
“This represents many, many years of dreams, of how we are being prepared and how we will deliver spectacular Games,” said Carlos Nuzman, president of the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee. “This is a moment that we bring everybody together with us, and I think this is the right moment that we needed this.”
The Olympic flame will burn brightly until the Closing Ceremony on Aug. 21, when it will be extinguished.
Then a few months before the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, the sacred fire will be kindled once again and Olympia will have another moment in the sun.