A torch-lighting ceremony is a traditional part of the opening ceremonies of the summer and winter Olympic Games. Although the torch relay itself has roots in the ancient Greek Olympics, the torch-lighting ceremony is a modern-day invention that was introduced in the 1936 games in Berlin. The flame and ceremony symbolize many things in the spirit of the games.
The first Olympic games were held in 776 B.C. to honor Zeus, the patriarch of the Greek gods. At the beginning of the games, a priestess would light a torch using a concave mirror to focus the sun's rays at the altar of Prometheus, just outside Athens. The torch relay ("lampadredomia" in Greek) was meant to maintain the purity of this sacred flame by transporting it as quickly as possible to the altar of Athena, located at the Acropolis.
Although the first official Olympic games of the modern era were held in 1896, the Olympic flame was first introduced at the 1928 games in Amsterdam. The tradition of commencing the games with a torch relay and torch-lighting ceremony was introduced at the 1936 games in Berlin.
Greek athlete Konstantinos Kondylis was the first runner in the relay that transported the flame from Greece to Germany. The torch passed from runner to runner until it reached Berlin's Olympic Stadium. There, the torch ignited the cauldron and the games officially began.
The torch-lighting was actually part of the Nazi propaganda effort surrounding the 1936 Berlin games, intended to burnish the international image of the Third Reich. Ironically, all countries the flame passed through on its way from Greece to Germany were subsequently annexed or occupied by the Nazis within the next few years.
According to ancient Greek mythology, fire was a gift to humanity from Prometheus, who climbed Mt. Olympus and stole fire from Zeus. According to legend, the Olympic flame that burns today is the same fire that has been burning since the the first ancient Olympics. According to the IOC, the flame today symbolizes "the light of spirit, knowledge and life," and signifies the passing of Olympic traditions from one generation to the next.
For the 1960 games in Rome, the flame followed a route that paid homage to ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, passing historic monuments in both countries. For the Mexico City games in 1968, the flame followed the route Christopher Columbus took when he traveled to North America. For the 1976 games in Montreal, the flame was transferred via satellite from Athens to Ottawa via electronic pulse derived from the Athens flame, and then run by relay from there. In the 1992 games, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo lit the flame with a burning arrow. At the 1998 summer games in Atlanta, former gold medalist Muhammad Ali lit the torch.