Rings and torch were Hitler's creations, not Greeks
The most beloved emblems of the Modern Olympics have a decidedly dark past.
The torch relay, which culminated in Friday's ceremonial lighting of the Flame at the Olympic Stadium, was a creation of Adolf Hitler, who tried to turn the 1936 Berlin Games into a celebration of the Third Reich.
And it was Hitler's Nazi propaganda machine that popularised the five interlocking rings as the symbol of the Games.
Today, both are universally recognised icons of the Olympics. But historians say neither had much, if anything, to do with the Games born centuries ago in ancient Olympia.
"The torch relay is so ingrained in the modern choreography that most people today assume it was a revival of a Pagan tradition - unaware that it was actually concocted for Hitler's Games in Berlin," author Tony Perrottet writes in a new book, The Naked Olympics.
``Ironically, considering its repellent origins, the torch race has come to symbolise international brotherhood today, and remains a centerpiece of our own pomp-filled Olympic opening ceremonies.''
A sacred Flame did burn 24 hours a day at Olympia, and at some other ancient festivals, relay racers passed a torch to light a sacrificial cauldron. But the ancient Greeks opened their Olympics by word of mouth, not fire, sending heralds - not torchbearers - running through the streets.
The modern tradition of spiriting the Olympic torch to the main stadium didn't become a fixture of the Games until 1936, when a 12-day run opened the Games in Berlin.
Hitler, who admired the powerful imagery of Greek gods such as Zeus, wanted his Games to promote his belief in Aryan supremacy. The torch relay, memorialised in Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia, was part of the Nazi leader's elaborate attempt to add myth, mystique and glamour to an Olympics intended to intimidate pre-world War II Europe. In Hitler's eyes, the torch symbolised the perfection and victory of the German nation.
He didn't pull it off - black American runner and long-jumper Jesse Owens made a mockery of the notion of a blue-eyed, golden-haired master race by winning four gold medals in Berlin. In his book The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival, American historian David C Young says the torch relay was invented by Carl Diem, a German who planned the 1916 Berlin Games before World War I forced their cancellation and returned to organise the 1936 Games.
``Hitler took considerable personal interest in the ritual, and pumped funds into its promotion,'' Perrottet says. ``The Nazi propaganda machine covered the torch relay slavishly, broadcast radio reports from every step of the route, and filled the Games with the iconography of ancient Greek athletics.''
Today, the torch relay is a pre-Games spectacle cheered by millions as an emblem of the friendly spirit of the Games. Sports heroes, celebrities, politicians and children have carried it around the world every four years on foot, horseback, camel, steamboat, train and wheelchair.
Since it was lit on March 25 by the sun's rays at ancient Olympia, the relay of the Flame for the Athens Olympics has travelled an unprecedented 7,5314 km through 26 countries - including a 51.5-km leg in Berlin that began at the imposing limestone stadium Hitler had built for the 1936 Games.
The Olympic rings, another universally recognised symbol of the Games since they made their debut at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium, have their own Nazi connection.
Originally, they were designed in 1913 by French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the International Olympic Committee and father of the modern Olympics movement, for a 1914 world Olympic Congress in Paris. They were supposed to symbolise the first five Olympics, but the Congress disbanded when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering World War I.
Riefenstahl, the Olympia filmmaker who also chronicled Hitler's rise to power, had the rings carved into a stone altar at the ancient Greek city of Delphi, spawning the myth that they were a symbol dating back more than two millennia.
With Hitler's influence, the rings became part of the Nazi pageantry at Berlin - and they've come to symbolise the Olympics ever since.