A spectacular blue filled the midday sky in Olympia, Greece, perfect for an Olympic torch lighting ceremony. Thursday’s ritual marked the start of the journey of the Olympic flame from the ancient Greek Olympic ruins to Japan for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
The ceremony blended the roots of Hellenic past with the reality of today. The International Olympic Committee and Greek Olympic Committee modified the ceremony’s structure, in the name of public health and safety due to the global coronavirus pandemic. The ceremony was closed except to only 100 invited guests, and they were seated in spread-out rows to maintain safe distancing. Some parts of the ceremony, particularly involving children, were eliminated to prevent spreading of the virus.
The ceremony was pared down to the essentials: the raising of the Greek, Japanese and IOC flags with the playing of their respective anthems; remarks from dignitaries such as IOC President Thomas Bach; and the flame lighting ritual.
Toshiaki Endo, the special representative to the president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, said the Games will showcase the human spirit.
“The COVID-19 virus continues to spread around the world, we are grateful that the concerned people of Greece have taken all possible and appropriate measures for the lighting ceremony,” Endo said. “Tokyo is the first city in Asia to host the Olympics, in 1964. Since then we have had earthquakes, tsunamis and other natural disasters. We have lost loved ones and precious things.
“However, human beings are resilient … the Olympic flame, as it now travels, give us hope.”
The ceremony started in the Ancient Stadium, a bowled lawn for track and field. The speeches and flag raising happened first, and then the ceremony moved to the nearby Temple of Hera – which dates back to the seventh century B.C.
In the temple, 33 women awaited to play the role of ancient priestesses. They performed a movement ritual to prepare the area for the lighting. The first torch, constructed in silver with a style reminiscent of the temple’s remaining columns, was ignited by the high priestess through the parabolic mirror solar cauldron. The flame was transferred to another priestess a few steps away, into a small, ornate bronze bowl.
The flame returned to the Ancient Stadium in a solemn procession of the priestesses and male athletes, followed by an interpretive dance set to original Greek music.
Then it was time for the heart of the ceremony: beginning the Olympic torch relay.
Under the slogan “Hope Lights Our Way,” the procession started with 2016 Olympic shooting gold medalist Anna Korakaki of Greece. She received the flame from the high priestess, igniting her torch and making history as the first woman ever to lead off the Olympic relay in Greece. She ran on the Ancient Stadium’s rustic track, smiling while holding the gold, cherry blossom emblazoned torch aloft in her right arm and an olive branch high in her left.
She reached the top of the stadium’s hill, then the modern road leading to the complex, and passed the flame to 2006 marathon Olympic gold medalist Mizuki Noguchi of Japan.
The torch relay now weaves through 37 cities in Greece during the next eight days. The flame will be handed over to the Japanese organizers in Greece on March 19. The Japanese torch relay will move through the country over the next 121 days, culminating with the Opening Ceremony on June 24 in Tokyo.
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for The New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for TeamUSA.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.