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What Are the Origins of the Olympic Torch Relay?

The Olympic Games are widely seen as a way to unite the world, but one popular Olympic tradition, the torch relay, originated in a much more divisive time and place. Despite widespread belief that the relay was part of the original Olympics in Ancient Greece, the modern Olympic torch relay actually originated in Nazi Germany, at the 1936 Games in Berlin. Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister for Adolf Hitler, saw an opportunity to popularize the myth of "Aryan" superiority by promoting the idea that Nazi Germany was the natural inheritor of classical Greek civilization. Thus the relay was born, with the runners making their way from Olympia, Greece, to Berlin, to light the Olympic cauldron. Foreshadowing the conflict to come, the torches were made by Krupp, a firm that built the machine guns later used by German soldiers during World War II. Onlookers along the torch route through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were expected to shout, "Heil, Hitler," as the runners passed. In reverse, the torch route was not dissimilar from the path that Hitler's invading troops would take through Europe at the start of World War II, just three years later.

There is one silver (or is it gold?) lining, though: When the Olympics were held again -- not for 12 years because of World War II -- they were in London, and the torch relay became known as a symbol of peace, which is how it remains today.

Looking back at the 1936 Olympics:

  • The 1936 Berlin Games were the first sporting event ever televised, but they could only be seen in Berlin and Potsdam, Germany.

  • American sprinter Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Games, angering Adolf Hitler, who had wanted to ban African-American and Jewish athletes from competing.

  • The youngest gold medalist in Summer Olympics history was Marjorie Gestring, who was 13 when she placed first in springboard diving at the 1936 Games while representing the United States.

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More Info: USA Today

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