Olympic torch relay pioneered at Nazi Games

Olympics symbols were products of the fanatical nationalism poisoning Europe during the inter-war years.

Olympic Torch supervisor Gary Mitchell inspects a London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games Torch. Picture: AFP/London 2012/David Tully

LONDON - Mist clears to reveal white marble images from classical Greece culminating in Myron's celebrated statue of an athlete poised to launch a discus in the prologue to Leni Riefenstahl's remarkable documentary film "Olympia".

The statue rotates and melts into an identical image of a contemporary discus thrower. It is succeeded by further paeans to the sculptured Greek ideal of physical beauty with pictures of a shot putter, a javelin thrower and rhythmic gymnasts.

Finally, flame floods the screen followed by a bare-chested runner embarking on the first torch relay of the modern Olympics.

Like the remainder of Riefenstahl's lengthy masterwork, the relay footage is both haunting and disturbing.

The torch travels from Olympia in Greece through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria and Czechoslovakia to Berlin and the 1936 Nazi Games. It is a journey the German army was destined to retrace.

A mighty roar and a sea of fascist salutes greets the final torchbearer Fritz Schilgen as he runs into the Berlin stadium to light the cauldron. Greece lead the 51 nations parading at the opening ceremony, under the gaze of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

The flame, the five rings, the Olympic oath, the hymn and the anthems were products of the fanatical nationalism poisoning Europe during the inter-war years.

At the suggestion of Berlin Games organiser Carl Diem the torch relay was added, with more than 3,000 runners bearing the torch over 3,187 km.

The classical origins of the Olympic flame stem from the theft of fire from the Olympian god Zeus by Prometheus and gifted to mankind.

At Olympia, site of the ancient Games, a flame burned at the altar of Hestia, goddess and guardian of fire. It was introduced to the modern Games in Amsterdam in 1928 and burned again in Los Angeles four years later.

Boosted by enthusiastic radio coverage, the Berlin torch relay was a huge success and after World War Two it became firmly established as an essential and popular pre-Games ritual.

The first runner in the 1948 London Games relay took off his military uniform before carrying the flame to commemorate the sacred peace truce observed in the ancient Games. A boat ferried the flame across the channel to England.