Everything you need to know about the Lighting Ceremony 

A high priestess passes the Olympic flame at the Temple of Hera during a lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia, Greece.
A high priestess passes the Olympic flame at the Temple of Hera during a lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia, Greece.

On 12 March 2020, the Olympic flame will be lit near the Temple of Hera at the sacred site of Ancient Olympia in Greece.

But how much do you know of the event itself, how the flame is lit, and why the High Priestess wears pleats in olive green?

Olympic historian Philip Barker explains everything you need to know about the ceremony as the countdown to Tokyo 2020 gathers pace.

What happens during the Lighting Ceremony?

The ceremony itself is largely symbolic and is used to connect the Games of Ancient Greece to the modern Olympics. As the name suggests, the Olympic flame will be lit during the ceremony, which is held at the site of the first Olympic Games of Antiquity in Ancient Olympia, Greece.

Greek actress Aleca Katseli lights the Olympic Torch which will be carried to Tokyo, the site of the 1964 Olympic Games
Greek actress Aleca Katseli lights the Olympic Torch which will be carried to Tokyo, the site of the 1964 Olympic Games

What does the flame represent? 

The flame is intended to invoke the legend of Prometheus who stole fire from the gods on behalf of humankind, and continues to be used to represent positive values that humans have always associated with the symbolism of fire.

As is tradition, the flame lit during the ceremony will be used to light the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Games.

Has the Olympic flame always been lit in Greece?

Although a flame burned from a tower at both the 1928 Amsterdam and 1932 Los Angeles Games, it wasn’t until 1936, ahead of the Berlin Olympics, that a flame was first lit during a lighting ceremony in Ancient Olympia, Greece.

High priestess holds the Olympic flame
High priestess holds the Olympic flame
2017 Getty Images

How do they actually light it?

Rather than using artificial means, the flame is lit from the rays of the sun to demonstrate its purity.

The process is very simple: a parabolic mirror is used, acting as a giant magnifying glass to catch the sun’s rays, with strips of old camera film – which burn readily – placed inside the bowl.

The torch used to ignite the flame during the ceremony is distinct from those which will be used during the relay - it is forged from silver and inspired by the design of the pillars inside the Temple of the Goddess Hera.

The flame has been lit the same way since 1936.

What happens if it’s cloudy or raining during the ceremony?

A rehearsal for the lighting ceremony is held a few days beforehand. The flame kindled is kept in a safety lamp as reserve in case of poor weather on the day of the ceremony.

High priestess holding the Olympic flame at the Temple of Hera
High priestess holding the Olympic flame at the Temple of Hera
2017 Getty Images

What happens during the ceremony?

The ceremony will begin with the flags of both Greece and Japan raised and their national anthems played. The Olympic flag is also raised and the Olympic anthem performed by the Children’s and Youth Choir of Lavreotiki Municipality.

Thirty-five priestesses arrive at the temple, and move into an area known as the Sacred Altis – an area where religious ceremonies were thought to have taken place in ancient Greece.

After their arrival, 12 young men known as ‘Kouri’ – those who announced the Olympic Games of Antiquity in the city states of Greece – recall heralds from the period.

The ‘high priestess’ – the lead performer in the ceremony and styled as the ‘High Priestess of the Goddess Hera’ – walks through the temple and offers an invocation to Apollo, calling for a ‘sacred silence’ and ‘clear skies’ so that the flame may be lit.

She holds the torch to the bowl until the flame bursts to life.

Another priestess, known as the ‘Estiada’ then receives the flame in an ancient pot (amphora), before the congregation walk in a slow procession towards the nearby ancient stadium.

Actress Maria Moscholiou dressed in an ancient Greek tunic in the 1980 lighting ceremony
Actress Maria Moscholiou dressed in an ancient Greek tunic in the 1980 lighting ceremony

Who is the High Priestess for Tokyo 2020?

This year Xanthi Georgiou will perform the role for the first time in Ancient Olympia. Georgiou lit the flame for the Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Athens and performed as a dancer during the ceremony ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games 2008.

The longest-serving High Priestess was Maria Moscholiou, who performed the role for four consecutive summer Games: Mexico 1968, Munich 1972, Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980.

What do the priestesses wear?

The design of the costume, known as ‘Chiton’, have always been based on the robes worn in Ancient Olympia.

During past ceremonies they have varied in colour, but most recently have been either cream-coloured or light turquoise with pleats in olive green. 

They are designed to reflect the Greek landscape.

High priestesses perform at the Ancient Stadium during the dress rehearsal for the lighting ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia in Olympia, Greece in 2017
High priestesses perform at the Ancient Stadium during the dress rehearsal for the lighting ceremony of the Olympic Flame at Ancient Olympia in Olympia, Greece in 2017
2017 Getty Images

What happens inside the stadium?

The ceremony continues with a traditional dance on the hillside whilst music inspired by ancient Greece – composed and performed by Yiannis Psimadas – is played on harp, flute and percussion.

As the dance draws to a close, the Estiada appears with a bowl and places it on a small altar. The high priestess repeats her prayer to Apollo, and the first torchbearer for Tokyo 2020 – the 2016 Olympic shooting pistol gold medallist Anna Korakaki – moves forward.

She will hold the burning torch in one hand and an olive branch in the other. As she departs, a young maiden steps forward to release a dove to symbolise peace.

Korakaki will then leave the stadium and run to a nearby monument to Baron Pierre de Coubertin – the French nobleman who revived the Olympics in modern times.

She will then pass the flame to a second runner, NOGUCHI Mizuki, the marathon gold medallist from Athens 2004, who is the first Japanese torch relay member to participate.