The Olympic Torch—Way Back Then and Now

Dr. David Romano07 APRIL 2008, PHILADELPHIA, PA—The Olympic torch, long the symbol of world unity, hasn’t had a smooth run thus far this year, as it makes its way to the 2008 summer games in Beijing, China. The flame was extinguished three times in Paris on Monday, April 7, as Pro-Tibetan protesters made their presence known. The disturbances put a halt to the torch relay in France, as security officials placed the flame on a bus to transport it to its end point in the country.

Until now, the torch has had a relatively peaceful journey since the idea of the modern Olympic flame was first inaugurated in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. The modern Olympic torch relay was first instituted at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Dr. David Gilman Romano, Senior Research Scientist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum and an expert on the ancient Olympic games, gets a lot of media phone calls about the torch—and other aspects—of the famous games, then and now.

Here’s what he has to say about the importance of that un-extinguished torch:

Although there was no torch relay in the ancient Olympic Games, there were known torch relays in other ancient Greek athletic festivals including those held at Athens. As a part of the Panathenaic Games a torch relay was run between competing tribal teams that ran from an altar in the Akademy, one of the city gymnasia, either the altar of Eros or the altar of Prometheus, to the Akropolis where the victorious team would light the dedication to the altar to Athena Polias. The relay was only a few miles in length and there were probably ten teams that competed, each with a large number of runners. The winning tribe received a prize of a bull and a cash prize. The winning individual won a vase and a smaller cash prize.

In ancient Athens, it was important that the torches be kept lighted, since if the torch went out the team was disqualified. Although the torch relay was a running event it was not a part of the regular program of athletic contests celebrated at the Panathenaic Games in Athens which was itself a festival in honor of Athena and held on her birthday. It was a civic event rather than a religious event of the Panathenaic Games.

In antiquity many religious festivals included athletic and some musical contests. In fact there was no such thing as secular athletics. All athletics were a part of religious cult, so that winning a victory in the games meant that the athlete had been most pleasing to the god or goddess and hero who bestowed victory on the athlete.

Photo: Dr. David Romano. Photo: Candace DiCarlo.

The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, located at 3260 South Streets on the Penn campus in Philadelphia, is dedicated to the study and understanding of human history and diversity. Founded in 1887, the Museum has sent more than 400 archaeological and anthropological expeditions to all the inhabited continents of the world. With an active exhibition schedule and educational programming for children and adults, the Museum offers the public an opportunity to share in the ongoing discovery of humankind's collective heritage. For general information, visitors may call (215) 898-4000, or visit the Museum’s award-winning website at


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