BBC History Revealed
When was the first Olympic torch relay?
SHORT ANSWER Don’t look to the Ancient Greeks; it was the Nazis who got the relay up and running
The tradition of running the
Olympic flame in relay did not feature in the ancient games, nor did it appear when the starter’s pistol sounded for the modern Olympics in 1896. In fact, the torch relay owes its existence to Nazi Germany.
The sports administrator Carl Diem came up with the idea for the 1936 games in Berlin – the one Adolf Hitler intended as a demonstration of the superiority of Aryans and the Third Reich. Diem, who had been chosen as organiser before the rise of the Nazis, wanted the relay to be a spiritual connection to the Olympics’ ancient forebears, who kept a sacred fire burning throughout the duration of their games.
On 20 July 1936, the flame was lit in Olympia and a Greek athlete, Konstantin Kondylis, began the relay to Berlin, a journey of more than 3,000 miles more than 3,000 runners, and lasting 12 days. It proved a massive success for Nazi Germany, although in the resulting propaganda film the lighting of the flame was carefully reshot to ensure that a German, Aryan runner came first.
The relay, rather than being condemned as a corrupting Nazi practice, was instantly reclaimed for the 1948 Olympics in London as a “relay of peace”.