Olympic symbols are Nazi origins
The torch relay and five interlocking rings were created by Adolf Hitler.
ATHENS, Greece (AP) -- The most beloved emblems of the modern Olympics have a decidedly dark past.
The torch relay that culminates in the ceremonial lighting of the flame at Olympic stadium was ordered by Adolf Hitler, who tried to turn the 1936 Berlin Games into a celebration of the Third Reich.
And it was Hitler's Nazi propaganda machine that popularized the five interlocking rings as the symbol of the games.
Today, both are universally recognized icons of the Olympics. But historians say neither had much, if anything, to do with the games born centuries ago in Ancient Olympia.
"The torch relay is so ingrained in the modern choreography that most people today assume it was a revival of a pagan tradition -- unaware that it was actually concocted for Hitler's Games in Berlin," author Tony Perrottet writes in a new book, "The Naked Olympics."
"Ironically, considering its repellent origins, the torch race has come to symbolize international brotherhood today, and remains a centerpiece of our own pomp-filled Olympic opening ceremonies."
A sacred flame did burn 24 hours a day at Olympia. And relay racers passed a torch to light a sacrificial cauldron at some other ancient festivals. But the ancient Greeks opened their Olympics by word of mouth, not fire, sending heralds -- not torchbearers -- running through the streets.
The modern tradition of spiriting the Olympic torch to the main stadium didn't become a fixture of the games until 1936, when a 12-day run opened the games in Berlin.
Hitler, who admired the powerful imagery of Greek gods such as Zeus, wanted his games to promote his belief in Aryan supremacy.
The torch relay, memorialized in Leni Riefenstahl's film "Olympia," was part of the Nazi leader's elaborate attempt to add myth, mystique and glamor to an Olympics intended to intimidate pre-World War II Europe. In Hitler's eyes, the torch symbolized the perfection and victory of the German nation.
Owens foils notion
He didn't pull it off -- black American runner and long-jumper Jesse Owens made a mockery of the notion of a blue-eyed, golden-haired master race by winning four gold medals in Berlin.
In his book "The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival," American historian David C. Young says the torch relay was invented by Carl Diem, a German who Hitler commissioned to organize the 1936 Summer Games. Diem had planned the 1916 Berlin Games, which were canceled because of World War I.
"Hitler took considerable personal interest in the ritual, and pumped funds into its promotion," Perrottet says. "The Nazi propaganda machine covered the torch relay slavishly, broadcast radio reports from every step of the route, and filled the games with the iconography of ancient Greek athletics."
Today, the torch relay is a pre-games spectacle cheered by millions as an emblem of the friendly spirit of the games. It has been carried around the world every four years on foot, horseback, camel, steamboat, train and wheelchair by sports heroes, celebrities, politicians and children.
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