One of the traditions that has been part of the Olympics for over 80 years now is the lighting of the Olympic flame. The Olympic flame has been around the world, made its way into space, and has even scaled the highest mountain in the world. Although the Olympic flame made its first appearance in 1928 in Amsterdam, it was not until 1936 that the tradition of carrying the flame from the Olympic Stadium, the birthplace of Olympics, to the host city via a torch relay was introduced. Since then, hundreds of thousands of people have had the privilege of carrying the Olympic torch. However, only very few people have had the opportunity to light the Olympic flame.
Who Lit the Olympic Flame?
Fritz Schilgen was the 3,075 and the last bearer of the maiden relay torch in 1936. He was a German-born athlete who began his career as a long distance runner. He participated in several championships including World University Games and German Championship, finishing within the medal position on some occasions. Schilgen was also an accomplished engineer, developing 35 patents. He was chosen to light the 1936 Olympic flame because of his beautiful and graceful running style. He was also considered a symbol sporting youth. Schilgen’s dramatic lighting of the flame was featured in a Nazi’s propaganda film known as Olympia.
Eigil Nansen was the first non-athlete to light an Olympic flame. He was a humanitarian who worked with refugees. He was also a human right activist who fought mainly for the rights of refugees. In 1991, Eigil won the Lisle and Leo Eitinger award for his active involvement in human rights. He was selected to light the Olympic flame for the 1952 Winter Olympic Games in Norway.
Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen
The 1952 Summer Olympic flame was lit by two Olympic gold medalists. Nurmi was a well-known athlete who had won nine gold medals at the Olympics in the 1920s while Hannes had won four gold medals. During the lighting of the Olympic flame, Nurmi lit the torch at the field level and passed it over to other athletes who relayed the torch to the top of the tower where Henne lit the higher-placed torch.
Yoshinori Sakai lit the Olympic cauldron during the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Although he was an athlete, he never participated in any Olympic Game. He was born on the day Hiroshima was bombed by an atomic bomb. Sakai was selected to light the Olympic flame as a symbol of Japan’s rebuilding and peace after the war.
Were They All Athletes?
The lighting of the cauldron is not only reserved for popular and well-known athletes and personalities, but also to people who are not famous but symbolize the ideal of the Olympics. The 1976 Summer Olympic cauldron was lit by two teenagers representing the unity between French and English Canada. The 1994 Winter Olympic cauldron was lit by the Crown Prince Haakon of Norway in honor of his father and grandfather who had taken part in the Olympic Games. In 2012, a team of young aspiring athletes, each nominated by former British Olympic champions, was given the privilege of lighting the Olympic flame.