Priestesses light the Paris 2024 Olympic torch in Olympia, Greece

The Flame is Alive!

Release Date: April 16, 2024

Category: Blog | Torch Relay

The Olympics really starts to become real when the Olympic flame is lit, and the torch relay begins. Today, 101 days before the Olympics Opening Ceremonies, the torch was lit, and the flame started its journey around the world.

The Olympic torch relay first started with the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics, as a way to commemorate an ancient Greek tradition of torch races. In that first torch relay, over 3,000 torchbearers passed the torch through seven countries as it traveled from Olympia to Berlin.

Since then, the torch relay has grown in scope, with each host city putting their own flair on the spectacle. After the torch is lit in Olympia, a relay of torchbearers takes it to Athens, where there’s a handover ceremony to the host city at the Panathinaiko Stadium (home of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896). From there, the flame goes on a massive journey until it reaches the host city for the Opening Ceremony, and one lucky person gets to light the cauldron that signifies the opening of the Olympics.

New Touches for 2024
The lighting of the Olympic torch is a ceremony designed to recall the roots of the Olympics in Ancient Greece. The performers are called priestesses and kouroi and assemble at the ruins of the Temple of Hera. For the first time this year, the costumes designed by Mary Katrantzou, echo different styles of Greek columns. Also new this year, a new actress playing the High Priestess (Mary Mina) and all new choreography by Artemis Ignatiou. A new ceramic pot was made to hold the flame. (The pot came in particularly handy since cloudy skies required abandoning the parabolic mirror and employing a back-up flame.)

Do the Ancient Greeks Like Jazz?
Artemis Ignatiou has been involved with the ceremony since 1988, first as a performer and then head choreographer starting in 2008. Because there is no dance or music preserved from Ancient Greek, Ignatiou takes inspiration from still images on pottery or the walls of ruins. She must string together the pictures with movement and create a dance that will make the audience believe it could be something from the far distant past. No one know what music may have been played either, so sound is kept minimalistic.

Top Secret Rehearsals
The 48 performers are all volunteers. Rehearsals for this year’s ceremony were held on weekends in the Olympic Velodrome in Athens. Cyclists continued to practice as the dancers repeated their sequences over and over again. Those riders are some of the only people who get an early glimpse of the program; cameras and reporters are kept away from rehearsals.

But Is It Historically Accurate?
There is no evidence that the Ancient Olympics used fire in a ceremonial way, though flames, torches, and cauldrons had ritual purposes in Greek culture. The first torch relay was held across Germany for the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics. The idea is credited to the chief organizer of those games, Carl Diem. Despite its connections to Nazi Germany, the torch relay returned when the Olympics was revived after World War II. The torch for London 1948 traveled from Greece, across Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, and Luxembourg, before taking a ship from Calais, France to Dover.

The Flame in France
Paris has hosted the Summer Olympics twice before, in 1900 and 1924, but both those Games pre-date the tradition of the torch. The Winter Olympics did not have a torch relay until 1952, so Winter Games in France in 1924 and 1948 did not include a relay. While the flame traveled across France in that epic trek in 1948, and for the Winter Games in Grenoble in 1968 and Albertville in 1992, this will be first time France hosts a torch relay for a Summer Olympics on its own soil. The flame will arrive in France on May 8 at Marseille, host of the Olympic sailing competition, and a city settled by Greeks from Phocaea around 600 B.C.

–Alison Brown, with Jill Jaracz contributing

Photo credit: Paris 2024 / Photographe / SIPA PRESS