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1936 Olympic Torch Holder from the Berlin Games

The ceremonial running of the torch that begins the Olympics symbolizes the brotherhood and unity that the games strive to embody. Although the running of the torch seems like an ancient ritual, the torch relay didn’t become a tradition until the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. Carl Diem, the Secretary General of the Organizing Committee of the Berlin Games, had come up with the idea long before the Nazis were in power. He had actually planned a torch relay for the 1916 Berlin Olympics, but those games were cancelled because of World War I. The idea of this significant and impressive event was widely supported by Hitler and the Nazi party, who saw the relay as an opportunity to spread positive propaganda to a wide audience.[1] Despite the fact that the torch relay has no exact counterpart in the Olympics of ancient Greece, Diem drew upon ancient symbolism when planning the relay. Diem chose to begin the relay in Olympia as a nod to the eternal flame of the goddess Hestia, which burned in the sanctuary at Olympia where the ancient games were originally held. From Olympia, Diem began planning a 12-day relay to get the flame to Berlin without being extinguished.[2] In order to accomplish this feat the roughly 1,980-mile journey was split up into smaller 1,000-meter segments with an individual runner assigned to each segment.[3]

Sculptor Walter Lemcke was tasked with designing the wooden torch and metal holder that the runners would use to carry the flame from Olympia to Berlin, which were then manufactured by the German company, Krupp. Krupp produced 3,840 torches and holders, 500 more than were needed for the 3,340 runners tasked with relaying the flame from Olympia to Berlin. Lemcke designed the metal torch holder to be a sort of souvenir for the runners to keep after completing their segment of the journey. The torch holders were made of highly polished stainless steel and featured a map on the handle that highlighted some of the major cities along the route from Olympia to Berlin, along with the inscribed words, “In gratitude to the bearer”.[4]

The wooden torches and stainless-steel holders were seen as experiments in German engineering. Since a torch relay had never been done before, no one was entirely sure how to ensure the flame would not be extinguished during various segments of the arduous journey. Each runner was assigned a 1,000-meter segment of the total journey, and was responsible for keeping the flame lit until it could be passed onto the torch bearer for the next leg of the relay. Although each 1,000-meter segment was only expected to take 5 minutes to run, the torches still needed to be designed so that they were impervious to changing temperatures, rain, strong winds, and even falling runners. Lemcke had clearly begun to think about these issues, and included a flat plate at the top of the metal torch holder that would protect the runner’s hand if flaming segments of the wooden torch were to fall. Krupp engineered the torch with two fuses made of magnesium, so if the flaming part of the torch were to fall off, the glowing fuses would reignite the flame. To further combat the possibility of losing the flame, the wooden torch and metal holder were further encased in a reinforced, cone-shaped covering that provided durability, and doubled as a wind shield. With all the parts assembled, the torch was over two feet long, and weighed almost two pounds. While not extremely cumbersome, the torch was probably not the ideal object to carry while running outside on rough terrain.[5]

Despite all the complications, the sacred flame successfully survived its 12-day journey from Olympia to Berlin. As a master of propaganda, Hitler used every opportunity he got to tout the superiority of German engineering and the Nazis at the 1936 Olympic Games. In his eyes, Hitler probably believed that this grandiose display would give the rest of the world an impression of almost mythical power surrounding Nazi Germany and convince Europe that the blonde, blue-eyed Aryans were truly the master race.


[1] Young, David C. A Brief History of the Olympic Games. John Wiley & Sons. April 15, 2008. p. 167-168.

[2] The Olympic Flame and the Torch Relay. The Olympic Museum Educational and Cultural Services. The Olympic Museum. 2013. p. 4-6.

[3] Official Report of the 1936 Olympic Games. Vol. I. Wilhelm Limpert. Berlin. 1937. p. 512.

[4] Official Report of the 1936 Olympic Games. p. 513-514.

[5] Official Report of the 1936 Olympic Games. p. 513-514.



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