In July 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Olympic flame did not make its traditional relay route through numerous countries in order to light the cauldron in Tokyo, Japan, for the start of the games. Normally the flame is transferred from one torch to another in a relay across nations, but in March 2020, starting in Olympia, Greece, the flame was flown directly to Japan where it waited as organizers scrambled to reschedule the postponed games due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But where did this tradition originate from? The Olympics torch relay has a dark history, with its roots in Nazi propaganda.
The torch relay was conceived for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, under Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. While the opportunity to host the Olympics was awarded to Germany in 1931, Hitler came into power soon after, inheriting the hosting duties from the Weimar Republic.
Joseph Goebbels, in charge of Nazi propaganda, recognized the benefits of hosting the games, by celebrating the “Aryan” ideal and presenting Germany’s image to the world. During the period leading up to and during the games, athletic imagery established links between Nazi Germany and ancient Greece, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Some of those posters can be seen on the website of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. The images depicted Aryan figures imagined as heroic, blue-eyed blondes. One even depicted such a figure running on a map, tracing the torch relay route from Greece to Germany. There is plenty of reporting on how Hitler admired Greek civilization and wished to recreate it to represent the aspirations of the Third Reich. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum:
Germany skillfully promoted the Olympics with colorful posters and magazine spreads. Athletic imagery drew a link between Nazi Germany and ancient Greece. These portrayals symbolized the Nazi racial myth that superior German civilization was the rightful heir of an “Aryan” culture of classical antiquity. Concerted propaganda efforts continued well after the Olympics with the international release in 1938 of “Olympia”, Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial film documentary of the Games.
The Nazis reduced their vision of classical antiquity to ideal “Aryan” racial types: heroic, blue-eyed blondes with fine features like those on classical statues.
More about the Nazi regime’s intentions were made obvious in the way they used the relay to further their message. Fritz Schilgen, a young, blond-haired runner, was chosen as the final torchbearer in Berlin. Photographs show him running through a stadium lined with swastikas and past children doing the Nazi salute. Footage of the event was shot, re-shot, re-staged, and edited for the 1938 documentary “Olympia,” which many consider to be Nazi propaganda.
The Olympics official website, however, emphasized that the 1936 games illustrated “Adolf Hitler’s failed attempt to use them to prove his theories of Aryan racial superiority. As it turned out, the most popular hero of the Games was the African-American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump.”
It is widely reported that the torch relay was conceived by Carl Diem, a former German Olympian. He was said to have modeled it after a similar race in Athens from 80 B.C. In 1936, 3,422 torch bearers ran 0.6 miles along the route of the torch relay from Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics, to Berlin. Diem was derided as a “White Jew,” because his wife had Jewish ancestry. But he was allowed to remain as the general secretary of the organizing committee. Opinions remain divided on Diem’s role in the Nazi regime — he was accusing of collaborating with them, though he was never officially a member of the party.
The Nazis had already begun targeting Germany’s Jewish population in earnest by the time the Olympics began in Berlin, but the regime camouflaged its activities for the sake of impressing foreign visitors.
Propaganda posters from the time depict the torch relay as a ceremony connecting the ancient Greek, ostensibly “Aryan,” civilization to Nazi Germany’s beliefs of racial superiority. Depictions of the ceremony from the time support this interpretation, in both covert and overt ways.