"The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part" is the first line of the Olympic Creed. The Olympic Games have drawn participants beyond the athletes in an attempt to spread the ultimate Greek message to lay down weapons (differences) and make the games a time of peace.
Dating back to the origins of the games, Greeks believe fire to be pure and sacred. Fire symbolizes earths beginning, a new start and provides light for all people. Greeks had altars at the center of every town where a flame burned continually and many of their temples had a continual flame.
In Olympia, where the first Olympic games were held, these flames were lit using the power of the sun at the goddess of family, Hestia's, temple. When the games were held, every four years, a torch would be carried from the temple to the games as a religious ritual to honor Hestia. The torch would be carried from Olympic and carried around Greece before it would go to the games. Depictions of the torch being passed from one runner to the next can be seen on ancient Greek pottery.
When the games were renewed in 1986, all of the symbolism from the ancient games was renewed as well. Prior to the start of each Olympic Games, the flames in Olympia are lit in a ritual that is still done as in ancient times and the altar flame is lit using the sun. These rituals are normally kept private with only a few in attendance. Lighting the flame at the altar connects the games of old and the games of new. The torch that is lit is then carried out for all to see and passed off to the first bearer of the flame.
The 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam had a flame lit in the stadium at the start of the games, renewing the tradition of the continual flame burning during the games. The flame was not lit using the traditional torch though. Then and now this flame burns for all to see during the games and burns until the games are finished.
Many credit Adolph Hitler with renewing the torch run, but it was Carl Diem, a professor of history who was on the Olympic committee for the games of 1936 in Berlin that suggested the torch relay. The torch was lit in Olympia and carried to Berlin by numerous runners. Even though the games in Berlin were viewed by many as a negative political ploy, the spirit of the games came through and the tradition of the torch relay, that symbolizes uniting all people, has become a world tradition.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has set guidelines for how each host city for the Olympics can select torchbearers, how the torch will be designed, how the relay will be promoted and how the torch will be delivered safely to the opening ceremony. Each host city has mixed their own traditions and symbols in with the traditions of the torch relay. The relay can last up to 100 days. The torch has traveled in every way imaginable, from wheelchair to satellite, on land, in the air, on and under the sea.
The arrival of the torch in the main arena where the Olympics will be held is a tradition that unites the people of the globe. For that brief moment in time, the world gathers together to watch the traditional last lap of the track and the eternal flame of the Olympics lit. Many great people have been bestowed the honor of lighting the flame from the torch, but it is the symbol that we are all participating together, regardless of protests and differences, that the human race can unite, that makes the opening torch lighting ceremony so special.