The Olympic Torch Relay Began in Nazi Germany

After a torch-lighting ceremony this week, the Olympic flame began its long journey from Olympia to Paris

Woman holding up a torch
Greek actor Mary Mina played the role of the high priestess at the ceremony, which took place in Olympia in front of the ruins of the temple of Hera. Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

Anticipation is building ahead of the Summer Olympics, which are set to begin in Paris in late July. But long-standing Olympic traditions are already underway: This week, the Olympic flame was lit during a choreographed ceremony in Olympia, Greece. The torch is now making its way to Paris, where it will arrive in time for the opening ceremony on July 26.

The history of the tradition is complicated. While it was inspired by ancient Greek practices, the relay was first held in Germany, where the Nazis employed it as a propaganda tool. Today, these dark roots are no longer associated with the event, which is meant to “represent the host country and the spirit of the Games,” according to the International Olympic Committee. The connection to ancient Greek traditions remains. 

At Tuesday’s torch-lighting ceremony, actors dressed in long black and white gowns gathered in front of spectators. Greek actor Mary Mina, who performed the role of “high priestess,” lit the torch in front of the ruins of the temple of Hera. (Traditionally, a parabolic mirror is used to kindle the fire by concentrating the sun’s rays. But because the weather was overcast, Mina used a backup flame from a fuel-filled torch instead.)

Mina then lit a torch held by Greece’s Olympic rowing champion, Stefanos Ntouskos. He passed the fire over to Laure Manaudou, France’s three-time Olympic medalist in swimming, who then transferred it to Margaritis Schinas, vice president of the European Commission.

From there, the flame began its 11-day relay across Greece. This will end on April 26 at Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium, which hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896. After spending the night at the French Embassy in Athens, it will be carried onboard the Belem, a three-masted ship that dates to 1896, for a journey across the Mediterranean.

It’s scheduled to arrive in Marseille, France, on May 8. The next day, a runner will take the flame to the top of the Velodrome stadium, according to Reuters’ Karolos Grohmann. From there, the torch will go on a 68-day relay through France, ending in Paris at the start of the Games.

While simply lighting the torch in Paris would be easier, the “pageantry at Olympia” provides an “ineluctable link between the modern event and the ancient Greek original on which it was initially modeled,” as Nicholas Paphitis writes for the Associated Press.

The ancient Olympic Games began in 776 B.C.E. in Olympia. They took place every four years until around 393 C.E., when they were banned by the Roman emperor Theodosius I, a Christian who viewed them as a type of pagan celebration. 

Women wearing long gowns lighting torch
The weather was overcast on Tuesday, so Greek actor Mary Mina had to use a backup flame (rather than the traditional parabolic mirror) to light the torch. Milos Bicanski / Getty Images

But while the torch-lighting ceremony draws inspiration from ancient Greece, its history is more closely connected to Nazi Germany. In 1931, the International Olympic Committee awarded the upcoming 1936 Games to Berlin. When Adolf Hitler became Germany’s chancellor in 1933, he initially didn’t want to host the Summer Olympics, describing the Games as “an invention of Jews and Freemasons,” according to He later changed his mind when he realized the Olympics would shine an international spotlight on the Nazi party.

The torch relay was the brainchild of Carl Diem, the primary organizer of the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, who imagined a parade of more than 3,000 runners carrying a flame from Olympia all the way to Berlin. Diem was not a member of the Nazi party—but the Nazis made his vision a reality.

“Whether or not Diem meant it to, a torch relay fit neatly within Nazi propaganda,” wrote Max Fisher for the Atlantic in 2012. “Beginning the relay in Greece and ending it roughly 1,500 miles away in Berlin reinforced the idea of a shared Aryan heritage between the ancient power and the new one.”

Runner with torch in 1936
A runner arrives in Berlin with the Olympic torch in 1936. Bettmann

Director Leni Riefenstahl filmed the lighting ceremony on July 20, 1936, for a propaganda film called Olympia. However, she was unhappy with the ceremony’s aesthetics and staged a second one after the Games ended.

The ancient Greeks performed similar rituals at other events but did not stage a torch relay for the Olympics.

“To the ancient Greeks, fire was a sacred element, and perpetual fires were maintained in front of their main temples,” according to “During the ancient Olympic Games, a flame burned permanently on the altar of the sanctuary of the goddess Hestia; additional fires were lit at the temples of Zeus and Hera.”

The modern torch relay, meanwhile, has evolved over the years. Since its debut in 1936, the torch has embarked on increasingly complex journeys. It reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2008, and it even went on a spacewalk outside the International Space Station in 2013.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.