Skip To Content

Little-Known Fact: Nazis Lit the Flame of Olympic Torch Relay

Against the backdrop of this year’s tumultuous Olympic torch relay, New York Times polymath Edward Rothstein locates the origins of this peculiar ritual:

If you want to know how the Olympic torch really began its “Journey of Harmony,” as the Chinese call its current relay, if you want to see why the torch has had to pass through a human obstacle course composed of protesters, SWAT teams and police in San Francisco, Paris and London, then do not look to Tibet’s grievances against China. Look to the opening of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 film, “Olympia.”

In that homage to Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Games the origins of this ritual are revealed. Never before had a lighted torch been relayed from a Greek temple in Olympia to an athletic competition, let alone by thousands of runners trying to keep it from being extinguished.

Rothstein writes that with the 1936 torch relay Nazi Germany was staking its claim as “the living heir to Ancient Greece.” He also points out that the Nazis had plans for a 400,000-seat stadium in Nuremberg, since future Olympic Games, as Hitler put it, “will take place in Germany for all time to come” (with the exception of a 1940 turn at hosting for fellow Axis power Japan).

Unsurprisingly, Rothstein notes, the International Olympic Committee “offers a slightly different account of the torch relay.”


Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.