Over the years, the torch relay has become one of the cornerstones of the Olympics, as the flame makes its way from Olympia, Greece to the host country's Olympic stadium to mark the beginning of the Games. With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay just six days away, here's a guide to some of the most memorable relays in history.
The relay of peace – London 1948
In a Europe sorely afflicted by the war, the 1948 relay carried a welcome message of peace. The first runner, Corporal Dimitrelis, took off his military uniform before carrying the flame, commemorating the sacred truce observed in Ancient Greece. The planned route highlighted border crossings, where festivities were organised to celebrate the return of peace. In homage to the restorer of the Olympic Games, the relay passed through Lausanne, Switzerland and a ceremony was organised at Pierre de Coubertin’s tomb in the Bois-de-Vaux cemetery.
The ancient Relay – Rome 1960
The relay shone the spotlight on the two poles of classical civilisation: Athens and Rome. Lesser-known ancient sites in Greece and Italy were thus brought to the public’s attention. For the first time, the relay was televised and the event closely followed by the media.
Japan's first Olympic Torch Relay – Tokyo 1964
Tokyo 1964 was the first Olympic Games to be hosted in the continent of Asia and the Olympic Torch Relay was a special affair, worthy of the historic occasion. The flame crossed Japan by taking four different paths, leaving respectively from Kagoshima, Miyazaki, Chitose and Aomori. On 9 October in Tokyo, in the square outside the Imperial Palace, the four flames were reunited in one cauldron during a ceremony. On the following day, the final runner, Yoshinori Sakai, climbed the 163 steps that led up to the cauldron and lit it exactly three hours and three seconds after noon.
The Korean relay “Harmony and progress”– Seoul 1988
The relay showcased the traditions of Korea. Its route, which was a zigzag from east to west, symbolised the harmony to be found in the balance between two opposite poles. Some of the torchbearers did not wear the official uniform provided by the Games Organising Committee, but instead wore regional or traditional costumes.
The “Down Under” relay – Sydney 2000
The relay had a twofold goal: to situate Australia within Oceania and to promote the culture and heritage of the different regions in the country. The Torch relay visited 12 Oceanic countries before it arrived in Australia. The start of the relay on the Australian continent was in the “red centre” at Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), a sacred site for the indigenous population. The Aboriginal athlete Nova Peris-Kneebone, Olympic field hockey champion, was the first runner in the relay. The enthusiasm of the crowd along the relay route grew bigger and bigger. One million spectators welcomed the arrival of the flame in Sydney. In a ceremony which recalled the elements used in the design of the torch (fire, water, earth), Cathy Freeman “walked on water” before lighting a circle of fire which revealed itself to be the monumental cauldron.
2012 Getty Images
“Moment to shine” – London 2012
The London 2012 Olympic Torch Relay set out to showcase and shine a light on the best that Great Britain has to offer culturally, geographically, and from a human standpoint. Indeed, the torchbearers for the relay were selected based on their contribution to society. This selection process also played a key part in underlining London’s Games’ philosophy of inspiring a generation.
2020 Getty Images
"Hope lights our way" – Tokyo 2020
The symbol of the torch has taken on added significance over the past year, as the COVID-19 pandemic led to the postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Now, as the flame begins its 121-day journey across the 47 prefectures of Japan in the lead-up to a historic Olympic Games, the message "Hope lights our way" is more poignant than ever.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay begins in Fukushima on 25 March 2021.