By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou
The Olympic Games essentially begin with the lighting of the Olympic flame that takes place in ancient Olympia and is carried by athletes to the country where it will take place.... I wanted briefly to make reference to the meaning and history of the lighting of the Olympic flame.
The connection of the Olympic Games with the lighting of the Olympic flame was first introduced in 1936 with the Olympic Games in Berlin, and entered into the aims and objectives of Nazism. There are many elements to this issue.
First a paper should be mentioned that was presented at the 16th Session in ancient Olympia by Professor Nicholas Nissiotis, who was President of the International Olympic Academy and a member of the International Olympic Committee, with the title "Olympism and Religion". In this paper the late Professor firstly criticizes as exaggerated the association between Olympism and Religion and the presentation of "Olympism as a religious ideology", which was observed from the beginning of the revival of the Olympic Games, according to which "the Olympic idea is a Religion with its church, dogmas, service ... but above all a religious feeling." This is why there was talk of the "religio athletae" (Coubertin), though on the other hand he separates Olympism from Religion and accepts the view that the Olympics should remain as a nice ideology "that inspires brotherhood among people", while Religion "will remind the Olympic Movement, that the issue of brotherhood of the people is broader, deeper and harder than it looks."
This paper however, among other things, also sets forth the view of some who consider Olympism as a Religion and that "certain 'rituals' take place at the start of the Olympic Games, such as the use of the Olympic flame within an environment of mysticism" which is perceived as an "intense religious experience".
Dr. Henri Pouret, a member of the French Academy of Athletics, during the work of the 15th Session in ancient Olympia, spoke on "The Olympic Flame" and outlined his views on the myth, history and symbolism of the Olympic flame. In regards to the myth he refers to Prometheus who stole the sacred fire and moved it to earth. In regards to history he clearly identifies that the Olympic flame was first associated with the Olympic Games held by Hitler in Berlin in 1936 and was the creation of Dr. Carl Diem, President and Secretary of the Olympic Games in Berlin, with the approval of John Ketseas, member of the International Committee for Greece. The lighting of the Olympic flame first took place for these Games. In regards to the symbolism of the Olympic flame, he speaks of the enthusiasm of Pierre de Coubertin for his ideas, who had a weakness for symbolism, and argues that the Olympic flame is a connecting point between the old and the modern Games and recommends the revival of the Olympic Games that draws its power from the ancients. The Olympic flame, he says, "is for all people who have good will, an image of peace and ascension." The German University Professor Dr. Norbert Mόller, at the 16th Session in Olympia, developed the theme of the Olympic Idea according to Coubertin and Carl Diem and argued that for Coubertin "the Olympics were only the institutional framework of the anthropomorphic embodiment of concepts, that he called in the beginning the Olympic Idea, and after 1912 Olympism. This idea was intended to gather as many people as possible in an Olympic Movement." Indeed, Diem formed the Olympic Games in 1936 according to the ideas of Coubertin "to show the public, beyond competition, the pedagogical role of the Olympic Idea. The most striking result was the transfer of the Olympic flame from Olympia to Berlin, conducted with his colleague and dear friend John Ketseas, then General Secretary of the Committee for the Olympic Games in Greece."
As the Olympic flame was first introduced to the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936, we can remember the analysis made of this event by Kyriakos Simopoulos, since, as is known, Hitler linked the Olympic Idea with the Nazi Idea. In Berlin the flag with the Olympic circles was connected with the "swastika" of Nazism, and indeed the French newspaper Paris Soir described the Olympics held by Hitler as a "religious liturgy". Simopoulos writes: "The Olympic flame beautified the tyrannical regime. And everywhere was dominated with the slogan 'Germany above all in the world'."
Professor Fr. George Metallinos in his presentation made at a conference of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece referred to the lighting of the Olympic flame and using references talked about the connection with the Third Reich "as a Nazi version of ancient Greek culture and even the Spartan", and "the flame" with all the known pagan symbolism of national Nazism, "joining" through a chain of robust bodies, the ancient Greek birthplace and the capital of the Third Reich.
Today, the lighting of the Olympic flame is more linked to commercial exploitation in conjunction with the upgrading of the Olympic Games. At least we need to know the history and this knowledge will relieve us from prejudices and ideological rigidity that is a resale and foreign to the Olympic Games and the tradition of our country .
Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Η Ολυμπιακή φλόγα", February 2004. First published in "Vema" on Sunday, February 15, 2004. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.