A History of Lighting the Cauldron: Part 1


When I rebranded this blog in March of 2018, I had a hard time coming up with a name. What name would simultaneously make people think of the Olympics, but also be something that hasn't been used before? 

It didn't take quite as long as I anticipated, but what helped me choose was thinking about some of my favorite Olympic moments. The best part of any Olympics is the lighting of the cauldron which signifies the beginning of the Games. So I went with that, and "Light the Cauldron" was born.

It's only natural, therefore, that I talk about memorable cauldron lightings of the past as we get closer to the Tokyo 2020 Games. Each month I'll highlight three summer Games and talk about the uniqueness of each torch and cauldron lighting.

Amsterdam 1928/ Los Angeles 1932: Baby steps

While people will point to 1936 as the start of the torch relay, the actual cauldron lighting began 92 years ago in Amsterdam. The cauldron lighting doesn't have a direct connection to the ancient Greek Games - the closest thing they had was a "ritual fire." There wasn't as much pageantry to the Amsterdam cauldron lighting, but was meant to connect to the Greek's admiration for fire and its connection to the gods.

For Los Angeles 1932, the cauldron lighting was repeated. This time it was positioned over the top of the gateway to the Olympic Stadium.

Berlin 1936: The origin people would rather forget

The unfortunate history of the cauldron lighting begins with Nazi Germany. While Hitler scoffed at the idea of hosting the Olympics ("an invention of Jews and Freemasons"), one of his right hand men, Joseph Goebbels, encouraged him to bid in order to promote Nazi ideals.

Dr. Carl Diem, the chief organizer of the Berlin Games, was the man behind the torch relay. Hitler liked the idea because he always felt as if Nazi Germany was the rightful heir of the ancient Greeks.

Unlike future torch lightings and relays, which would have help from the Hellenic Olympic Committee, the 1936 lighting and relay was completely organized by Nazi Germany. They came up with the torch design, the parabolic mirror that would help to trap the rays of the sun and light the flame, the relay path through much of (what would later become) Nazi territory, and the flame that used a magnesium burning element that would stay lit under any weather conditions.

Leni Riefenstahl, the mastermind behind the "Olympia" film, actually didn't like the original footage shot of the torch lighting, so she actually faked another one that was used in the film itself. (You can see the fake and real relay footage at the beginning of this clip:)


The torch relay ended up being a huge kickstarter for pro-Nazi demonstrations through countries like Austria and Czechoslovakia. This wasn't meant to be a peaceful relay; it was meant to promote the Nazi ideals.

In Berlin, two urns were lit outside of the stadium by Siegfried Eifrig, surrounded by banners of Nazi swastikas and Hitler loyalists. Inside, the cauldron was lit by Fritz Schilgen. He wasn't a prominent German athlete, but was merely picked because his running style was pretty.




While seeing the Olympic Stadium in person 2 1/2 years ago, I had that feeling of awe that I was in an Olympic stadium, but also some unease at what that stadium used to stand for. (You can see the cauldron in the lower right section of my photo below. I adore these black-and-white photos I took.)


Eventually, though, the idea of the torch lighting and relay was accepted by the IOC as a tradition of the Games, and Rule 13 of the Olympic Charter states, "The Olympic Flame is the flame which is kindled in Olympia under the authority of the IOC."

London 1948: A step in the right direction

While the message of the 1936 relay was that of the might of Nazi Germany and its "inheritance" of the Greek empire, the 1948 relay began the universal message of peace.

The journey took another twelve days (like the Berlin relay), but this was the first time that the flame would be taken over water. The reason it had to do this was because Greece was in the midst of civil war, and was unable to traverse the entire peninsula. Instead, it took a Greek warship from Greece to Italy!

While Pierre de Coubertin was actually present at the torch lighting in 1936, he had passed away by the time of the London Olympics. However, the flame traveled to Lausanne, Switzerland, and went to the grave of de Coubertin.

The cauldron itself was lit by Cambridge athlete John Mark. And if you thought the Nazis were conceited for picking a cauldron lighter because his running style was pretty, the Brits picked Mark because he looked like a Greek god come to life! This was controversial because Great Britain had a great many runners that could have taken on the role of lighting the cauldron at Wembley Stadium.



Did anything surprise you about these torch relays and cauldron lightings? Which Olympic relay are you most excited to hear about? Comment below!

This only begins the wonderful countdown to Tokyo 2020. Please share these blogs with your friends who are starting to get excited for the Olympics!

Weekly Cauldron Check

Is the cauldron lit????

...No. But it will be in less than seven months!

I'm Claire Nat and you're reading Light The CauldronFollow me on Twitter and Facebook @CauldronLight and read my past Olympic articles! Look back on previous posts to hear about my trips to the US Curling National Championships, the US Figure Skating Championships, and my very successful quest to acquire tickets for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics!



Article Sources

History.com

Olympic.org


WashingtonPost.com

OCSociety.org


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