Radio National's The Sports Factor
with Amanda Smith

Lighting The Olympic Flame


The biggest secret of the Sydney Olympic Games - who will light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony? In the past, the choice has often been highly symbolic, or highly political. So who or what might Australians celebrate, or make a statement about, in the 2000 Games?

Details or Transcript:


Amanda Smith: Today on The Sports Factor, some wanton speculation about the best-kept secret of the Sydney Olympic Games: who will light the flame in the Olympic Stadium on 15th September.

In four months time, the 'sacred' Olympic flame will be kindled in Greece, ready to begin its journey to Australia for the torch relay. Now, we know that the relay will begin at Uluru. And the runner will be Nova Peris-Kneebone, the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal, which she did in Atlanta in 1996 with the Australian hockey team. But who's going to be the final recipient of the Olympic flame, and for what reason will that person be chosen?

After all, the choice of the person who lights the flame in the Olympic Stadium, and the way that it's lit, has become a matter of tremendous symbolism, sometimes highly political.

The modern Olympics didn't actually have any kind of flame event for some time, not until a little one for the 1928 Amsterdam Games. The idea then was much elaborated on for the Berlin Games of 1936, Hitler's Games, with the introduction of a torch relay from Olympia, and the ceremonial lighting of the cauldron in the stadium.

1936 BERLIN GAMES actuality

Commentator: Here comes the runner. He's got his torch. He's a fair young man, in his white shorts, running in. He's beautifully made, a very fine sight and athlete. He's running by all the officials. People are waving their hands and he's holding it high in his right hand...He's lit it and it's wonderful. He's lit it and the whole thing now is a blazing flame. Oh a wonderful sight, wonderful!

Amanda Smith: This original torch relay to Berlin in 1936 has been interpreted as a highly politicised affair, used to draw a racial link between the Ancient Greeks and the Third Reich. And according to Janet Cahill, who's the author of a soon-to-be-released book, 'Running Towards 2000: The Olympic Flame and Torch', the Nazi ideology can also be interpreted in the choice of the fair-haired young man who lit the flame.

Janet Cahill: An athlete by the name of Fritz Schilgen. Now there is also debate - there were photos taken just before he lit the cauldron, he turned to the crowd and held the torch high, but was it in a Nazi salute, or was he just holding the torch proudly before he then lit the cauldron? He is still alive, and the 1996 torch relay went through Germany; it honoured all the torch relay sites for this century, because it was the centenary Games. And Schilgen was at that ceremony, but he declined to comment on his stance in 1936.

Amanda Smith: While the idea of the sacred flame from Olympia began with the Berlin Games, there's never been any strict protocol around the choice of person who lights the cauldron. Since 1936, they've generally been either famous Olympic athletes, or non-Olympians whose participation is in some way symbolic. There's also been a recurring theme of redressing some kind of injustice of the past, as was the case at Helsinki in 1952 .

1952 HELSINKI GAMES actuality

Commentator: Paavo Nurmi, the great miler, the winner of the 1500 metres and 5000 metres in '24, and in '28 the winner of the 5 and 10,000 metres. Paavo Nurmi, one of the great athletes of all times. And now you can see the South African. Nurmi came round as you heard, with that magnificent stride. Probably he's an absolute god to these Finns, his statue was erected, stands just outside the entrance to the Olympic Stadium.

Amanda Smith: Paavo Nurmi's Olympic record for Finland in the 1920s, nine gold medals, made him the ideal candidate for Helsinki's Games, but Janet Cahill says it was also an act of reconciliation and restoration .

Janet Cahill: Yes, in 1924 the Finnish athletic officials decided not to allow Paavo to compete in the 10,000 metre race. That was considered to be a very controversial decision, and he fell out with them because he ran his own race at a nearby training track. And by his own stopwatch, beat the time of the person who won the gold medal at those games. It was considered as an act of defiance by the Finnish Olympic Committee at the time, and so there was a bit of a falling out there, and he didn't actually compete at an Olympic Games thereafter. So the Finnish Olympic Committee, inviting him to light the flame cauldron in 1952, may have been an act of reconciliation, given the sour relationship that he had had with that Committee since the '20s.

Amanda Smith: Now Geoff Dickson, who's a lecturer in Sports Management, Marketing and Sociology at Central Queensland University in Rockhampton, has also been researching past choices of who's lit the Olympic cauldron. In 1964, in Tokyo, Yoshinori Sakai was neither an Olympian, nor an athlete, so who was he?

Geoff Dickson: Well, Yoshinori Sakai's claim to fame was that he was born on the day that Hiroshima was bombed, that resulted in the ending of World War II. And obviously the selection there would tend to demonstrate or symbolise from Japan's point of view, the re-emergence of Japan post-World War II, and after the decimation that they suffered at the hands of the allied forces.

Amanda Smith: And Geoff, in 1980 in Moscow, we get really political with some Cold War nastiness in evidence. At the Moscow Games, the USA boycotts them because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; and the person chosen to light the flame?

Geoff Dickson: Was Sergei Belov. Who I understand had the privilege of captaining the Soviet basketball team at the 1972 Olympics. And it was at those Olympics that the Americans suffered their very first and to this day their only defeat at the Olympics in the sport of basketball. And to make matters worse, the match was considered one of the most controversial in history. At the end of regular time, an official claimed that there was an error in the timing, and that three seconds should be restored to the clock. At this point in time the Americans had won the game by a single point. During the ensuing three seconds, the Soviets did not score, but again there was another protest about the accuracy of the time. Again, much to the Americans' disappointment and frustration, a further three seconds was added to the clock for a second time and in that three seconds, Belov actually scored, to provide the Soviet Union with a very controversial victory. To this day, the Americans have yet to claim their silver medals. I understand that they remain in a bank vault in Munich to this date.

And really the selection of Belov in 1980, given the context of the Cold War/propaganda that was existing between East and West at that time, and given that the Americans had boycotted the 1980 Olympics, you've really got to ask the question: Was there anyone that the Soviets could have selected to light the torch to annoy or frustrate the Americans more than one Sergei Belov?

Amanda Smith: Geoff, 1988 and the Games in Seoul: the selection of Sohn Kee- Chung was another display of a kind of restitution of a past injustice.

Geoff Dickson: It certainly was. Sohn Kee-Chung does have the 1936 Olympic marathon title to his name, or that's really where the irony or the issue starts to emerge. Because if you look at the history books you will not find the name Sohn Kee-Chung. But in the 1936 Olympic records, you will see Kitei Son of Japan, as being credited with winning the 1936 Olympic Marathon gold medal. Now Sohn Kee-Chung and Kitei Son are exactly the same person. Kee-Chung was forced to represent Japan at the 1936 Olympics, which is a reflection of the Japanese occupation of Korea during that time. And his running with the torch at the opening ceremony in Seoul would seek to provide him with the honour of being able to wear his Korean colours, so to speak, rather than suffer the humiliation I guess of what it would have been, of having to represent Japan.

Amanda Smith: So what's the symbolism or story that we might tell about ourselves in Sydney next year? One thing's for sure: the flame ceremonies of the past two Olympic Games are going to be very hard acts to follow.

1992 BARCELONA & 1996 ATLANTA GAMES actuality

Commentator: Now the lighting of this flame is going to be done with an archer, who has just taken a light from the cauldron. He's got an arrow alight and he's going to fire it up into the dish. I wonder if he'll do it first time? He's waiting. Up goes the arrow, it does and it's aflame!... Muhammad Ali, a gold medallist at the Olympic Games. Muhammad Ali! It's very sad that he's stricken with Parkinson's Disease now. Muhammad holds the flag aloft, but the outward signs of Parkinson's are there and it really is marvellous to see the great man.

Commentator: Can you believe you're seeing this? This is absolutely magnificent.

Commentator: And the cauldron lights!


Amanda Smith: Well both Janet Cahill and Geoff Dickson agree that the Sydney organisers are going to have to come up with something pretty special to compete with those. In Barcelona of course, it was the way the cauldron was lit, the flaming arrow, as well as the symbolism of the archer, Antonio Rebollo, being a paralympian. While Atlanta, according to Geoff Dickson, was another of those acts of reconciliation. After all, Muhammad Ali had been vilified in the '60s for refusing to join the US Army to go to Vietnam.

Geoff Dickson: And in addition to the draft-dodging issue, was obviously the race issue. When he returned from the 1960 Olympics as a gold medallist, in his own words, 'I was still a nigger; I was still treated in a very discriminatory manner'. And legend has it that his Olympic gold medal lies somewhere in the bottom of a river in his native Kentucky. It meant nothing to him when he returned from the Olympics, he was still just one of the boys who was more liable to be unemployed, murdered than perhaps any other person. And the humiliation or the embarrassment or the non-event that, really, his Olympic gold medal was as a black athlete, I'm sure that the Atlanta organisers saw the opportunity to involve him in the 1996 Olympics, it was certainly an effort to make amends for the wrongdoings of a bygone era.

Amanda Smith: Well let's talk about who or what we might celebrate, or reconcile, or forgive, or make a statement about in Sydney next year. Janet?

Janet Cahill: Well there's probably a number of people that we could throw up. I suppose Dawn Fraser's going to be the obvious one, because she, similar to Muhammad Ali, got into a bit of trouble in the '60s. Although she didn't throw her medal into the river, but she had a falling out with the Australian Swimming Federation. But reconciliation, I suppose, could we look at it on a broader level, reconciliation perhaps with the Aboriginal people. We've got Nova Peris-Kneebone representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first torchbearer, should we be finishing off with perhaps another Aboriginal? And that would be a nice finish to the Games of this century. Secondly perhaps we could have a reconciliation with women. There have only been two women light the flame cauldron in the modern games, the modern summer games, that is. That's Enriqueta Basilio in Mexico in 1968 and Sarah Henderson in Montreal in 1976. So of all these flame lighting ceremonies we've only had two women represented.

Geoff Dickson: I think the first thing that needs to be considered if Australia or SOCOG is going to put forward an athlete, an Olympic athlete at that, if you look through the names that we've discussed, they're typically athletes of the highest calibre. And Dawn Fraser winning successive gold medals at the '56, '60, and '64 Olympics certainly fits into that category. And this was evidenced in 1996 at the centennial Olympics, when she was essentially made one of the top ten Olympians of all time as picked by the IOC. So that provides some sort of indication as to the regard that Dawn Fraser is held in the international sporting community.

I think that race and gender, and for that matter probably multiculturalism, will be potential things that SOCOG can explore with their final selection. But on the other hand I think that the danger would be if we were to have a strong Aboriginal presence in the opening ceremony, that would perhaps send an inaccurate message to the world concerning equality of indigenous Australians in modern society.

Janet Cahill: Yes, that's true, yes.

Geoff Dickson: And we would be sort of under no illusion that Australia is indeed a racist society today. I think that the political events that have occurred in Australia over the last two or three years and the prominence of the Wik debate and the emergence of the One Nation party, only serve to highlight that a lot of Australians would not really like to see Aboriginal culture used as the message, or the dominant theme at the Sydney Olympics.

Amanda Smith: But even if that's the case, and that's how some people might think, doesn't this also have the potential to be an exercise in representing an ideal, something that we might aspire to be, even if we're not?

Geoff Dickson: Yes. I think that it would just be important that we don't confuse the ideal with the reality. And that if we were to put for example Cathy Freeman up there to light the torch, what exactly would she be symbolising? Would it be her personal achievements, or would it be symbolising the equality, would they be trying to symbolise the equality that Aboriginal Australians have in reaching the top? Would they be trying to say that, 'Yes, it is possible for Aboriginal Australians to be the elite?' There's no doubt that that's possible, but the evidence would suggest that the odds are greatly stacked up against the Aboriginal Australian, in that they are highly under-represented at elite levels of sport in Australia.

Amanda Smith: Janet? Have you got more suggestions, comments?

Janet Cahill: Yes, I've been doing a bit of research and asking the community what they think, and I've come up with some very interesting comments from people out in the community. Such as, we're a young nation, are these going to be the Games of the new century? So perhaps we should be looking at somebody young, such as Susie O'Neill or Kieren Perkins or Michael Klim, who represent this young nation as it is. So that's a great suggestion. Whether they're an Olympian or not, I think it's more important that they have earned the right to experience or undertake this prestigious honour of lighting the Olympic cauldron, because they do go down in history. I like Geoff's idea of multiculturalism, I think no matter who it is, there could be a play on what their heritage and background prior to Australia, because we all have ethnic backgrounds. Apart from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, we've all come from somewhere. So I think that then displays the multicultural diversity in this country as well.

For non-Olympians there's a huge range of sportspeople that we could look at, or we could look at, as I mentioned before, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Olympians. For example, the Ella family. I think they're a household name in Australia as well, certainly they were during the '70s, three brothers and a sister and their cousin, all being elite athletes. There's the Cathy Freeman, John Kinsella went to two Olympic Games as a wrestler. And then if you move away from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Olympians, or not Olympians, then we have another host of people that we could choose from. So I think being a sporting nation we have a wealth of people to choose from to light the cauldron.

Amanda Smith: But Geoff, does the person chosen need to also be internationally famous? Presumably the idea is to thrill the whole world, not just ourselves.

Geoff Dickson: Yes, but that again is one of those criteria that SOCOG has to weigh up. The danger is, if you'll pardon the pun, if we try and stand toe-to-toe with Muhammad Ali at 1996, there probably is no better example of a global athlete than Muhammad Ali. So if Australia was to try to imitate that, it could essentially backfire. If you look through the likes of your Gunter Zahn, your Sergei Belovs and Antonio Rebollos who have lit it before, there's not too many household names, or world class names, outside of your Paavo Nurmis. The athletes were very obviously important to the host nation, but to suggest that all of them had a worldwide presence would be erroneous.

Amanda Smith: Well this raises the question really of if the choice is going to be an Olympian (an Olympic champion), or a non-Olympian, doesn't it?

Geoff Dickson: It does, and I think if convention is an indicator of what SOCOG might utilise for the 2000 Olympics, if they are going to use an athlete, the convention dictates that it will be an Olympic athlete. And for Australia that has quite a profound impact when you consider that without doubt our greatest athlete is a guy called Don Bradman, and he is arguably head and shoulders above everybody else. However, for the proponents for Bradman to light the torch, he doesn't have any connection whatsoever to the Olympics. And whilst there are no rules that tell SOCOG who they have to recommend, and there's no official guidelines as such, it would be a significant and a massive departure from Olympic protocol for someone like Sir Donald Bradman to light the torch.

Amanda Smith: Mind you, he could hit a flaming ball for six into the cauldron, that would be pretty specky!

What about harking back to a kind of pioneering past in Australia, Geoff? I'm thinking about if you combine - what about someone like Bill Roycroft, who is an Olympic equestrian, have him coming in on horseback, a kind of Man from Snowy River?

Geoff Dickson: That certainly is a potential theme for SOCOG to explore in their selection. And it would put I guess a little bit more emphasis like in '92 with the archer, that we might put more emphasis on the process rather than actually who lit the torch. And I can, in my own mind, picture a trusty steed going down the home straight with Roycroft or some other equestrian athlete.

Janet Cahill: That would certainly make amends for Australia not hosting the equestrian events in 1956, wouldn't it?

Amanda Smith: Now that's right. Because where were they held?

Janet Cahill/Geoff Dickson: Stockholm.

Amanda Smith: What about choosing a Paralympian? Louise Sauvage is the most successful Paralympian in the world.

Janet Cahill: Yes, well that's certainly an option, as in Barcelona in 1992. Antonio Rebollo was a vision-impaired Paralympian, so yes, there is that possibility. There's also Kevin Coombes who I may have mentioned before, a wheelchair basketballer who has attended five Paralympic Games in his history through the '60s and '80s. So that would be a very nice tie in with the Paralympic Games which, whilst they run parallel to the Olympic Games, actually need to be drawn closer in to the Olympic Games, I feel, for their future overall success and international awareness.

Geoff Dickson: Had Rebollo not been used in 1992, I would perhaps be willing to put money on Louise Sauvage to actually light the torch. Given that the precedent has been set only two Olympics prior, using a Paralympian, again it's all been done before.

Amanda Smith: Any of the restitution of past injustices, or past wrongs that you'd like to see perhaps put up as contenders, either of you?

Geoff Dickson: Well the one that I'd like to put forward would be Raelene Boyle. It's widely accepted that - well she did win two silver medals at the 1972 Olympics; the two gold medals in the 100 and 200 metre women's sprints were won by Renate Stecher from East Germany. And it's now widely accepted that Renate Stecher was performing with the assistance of performance-enhancing substances. And it's been argued that perhaps Raelene Boyle would have won, we'll never know. But she was beaten in the 200 metres for example, by only 5/100th of a second. And perhaps this is perhaps the bravest call that I believe SOCOG could make in their selection, if they would be prepared to put Raelene Boyle up there as a symbol of those athletes who have suffered great injustices at the hands of those athletes who have been using performance-enhancing substances throughout the Olympics.

And out of all the symbolisms that SOCOG has the opportunity to address, I believe that this one is perhaps the strongest one. Personally I believe it is the one that they should be doing. Personally it is the one that I would like to see them do, but I think never in a million years will they do it.

Amanda Smith: Well there's a challenge to those who'll be making the decision. And that was Geoff Dickson, from the School of Health and Human Performance at Central Queensland University, where he recently set his students the task of selecting who they thought should light the Olympic flame in Sydney, and why.

And I was also speaking there with Janet Cahill, the author of 'Running Towards 2000: The Olympic Flame and Torch', which is just about to be published. Janet's also the Olympic Project Manager for the University of Technology, Sydney.

Now the Olympic flame has to date of course been lit by only one Australian.

1956 MELBOURNE GAMES actuality

Commentator: And at this moment, the Olympic torch has arrived in the stadium. We have the name of the runner. His name is Ron Clarke, and it's his great privilege and honour to bear the Olympic torch around the full perimeter.

Amanda Smith: Ron Clarke wasn't an Olympic athlete at the time of the 1956 Melbourne Games; but as now, his selection for the job was a matter of utmost secrecy and the cause of much speculation.

Ron Clarke: It was, it built up into quite a national question at the time.

Amanda Smith: And I understand that you actually had to wear something of a disguise for rehearsal on the morning of that opening ceremony?

Ron Clarke: Yes, well the only one that picked it was Norman Banks, because he had a lot to do with my family through his sporting contacts with I think 3KZ at the time. We had these sports parades for the football clubs etc. And so he knew my family, knew me personally. And when he was there checking his microphone and things very early, I was running around in a balaclava and it was no disguise at all, so he was able to do an exclusive.

Amanda Smith: He must have picked you from your legs, Ron.

Ron Clarke: Well yes, a pretty obvious shape, yes!

Amanda Smith: Well you were 19 at the time, and the world junior record holder for the mile. Did it seem like a bit deal to you then to be chosen for the job of lighting the flame?

Ron Clarke: No. I was very pleased and thrilled to be associated with the Olympic Games, but I was also disappointed that I hadn't made the team. I had a fairly good chance to make it until John Landy went to America to tour. And ran against Jim Bailey, got beaten by Jim Bailey, and he decided to come back and take up the role in the 1500 metres trial, beat me in the trial. And therefore the team was Landy, Lincoln and Bailey, instead of Landy, Lincoln and Clarke. So I was pretty disappointed.

Amanda Smith: Right. So was this some compensation?

Ron Clarke: Of course, yes, certainly, it was a chance to be associated with the games. But I'm not very big on ceremonies I must admit, and I hadn't bought any tickets for the opening ceremony. I was saving my money to watch the games themselves. I'd bought tickets for, I think, three of the days.

Amanda Smith: Well you got a free ride anyway I suppose, didn't you?

Ron Clarke: Just for the one day, the opening ceremony yes.

Amanda Smith: Now there's photos of you, Ron, running your lap around the MCG with a rather pained expression on your face. How come?

Ron Clarke: What was happening is this thing sparked rather badly. And I'd had it in the morning, so I knew it did spark, but they asked me to hold it higher and more upright and therefore I had to hold it closer to my skin. And it singed me a little and burnt holes in the T-shirt, the T-shirt was rather badly burnt.

Amanda Smith: So you came away with some burns to your arms and face, did you?

Ron Clarke: Yes. It was made more fuss of than what it was, it was just one of those things where they asked me later was it very bad, and I said 'No', but St John's Ambulance men had been to me and they'd bandaged me up and put some stuff on it and bandaged it all up, and I put a tracksuit on. And the press after me saying 'No, it wasn't too bad', asked me to take off the tracksuit to have a look at it. And there I am bandaged from fingertip to elbow and all the T-shirt's burnt to ribbons and it looks as though I've gone through the Black Friday fire. It was really much worse in appearance than what it was in actuality.

Amanda Smith: Alright, so you're not still bearing the scars?

Ron Clarke: No, you can't find a scar anywhere.

Amanda Smith: Oh well, that's good. But you did make a rather dramatic stagger also when you lit the cauldron.

Ron Clarke: Well that's another thing that they had. I think they had a horror that I'd put the torch in the cauldron and it would go out, and we'd have to go all the way back to Athens to get it, before you could start the games or something. So when they told me, 'Make sure you put it right in' in the morning rehearsal, they'd had the gas turned down low. And I was supposed to get out of the way, then the flame would gradually rise and be very spectacular and nice to view. But someone panicked and said, 'What if it goes out?'. So without telling me, they turned the gas full on. So I plunged, standing up on my little stool, plunged right in and the gas exploded. I mean just exploded and blew me back off the stool. Lucky it wasn't to the left and it was back and to the right, because to the left was about a 30-metre fall.

Amanda Smith: Well that would have been a dramatic opening to those games. And I understand that when it was all over, you took the train home. That sounds a bit anti-climactic.

Ron Clarke: Well, that's what happens with officials in the Olympics and things, they thank you very much and say, 'You've had your turn. See you later.' My mother and father had kindly been brought in and they watched it from the committee room. I only told them at the very last minute to get ready and go. Of course they were thrilled out of their mind and got this official car in, and Helen and I had another official car in, after they went in. And then after it was all over we met up and got the train and went out to my mother's sister, my auntie. She was the only one in the family that had television and watched it all back again on television. And then caught the train home from there.

Amanda Smith: And you even had to pay for your own white T-shirt and shorts.

Ron Clarke: Yes, for sure. You didn't get anything given you in those days.

Amanda Smith: No. Well, Ron Clarke thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Ron Clarke: You're welcome, Amanda.

1956 MELBOURNE GAMES actuality

Commentator: The runner is approaching the bowl. The flame is held high, and the Olympic flame is alight!


Amanda Smith: Sounds like a bad Hollywood toga saga now, doesn't it? The Olympic Hymn, from the 1956 Melbourne Games. And Ron Clarke, who almost became a burnt offering in the process of lighting the Olympic flame at those games.

And that's The Sports Factor for another week. Hope you'll join me, Amanda Smith again next Friday.

Amanda Smith

Michael Shirrefs

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