for National Geographic News
Soccer legend Pelé cried as he brought it around Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium. Nelson Mandela carried it at Robben Island, where the former South African president was imprisoned during the apartheid years.
Emotions have sometimes run high as the Olympic flamea beloved symbol of the Olympic ideals of competition, friendship, peace, and culturehas made its way around the world ahead of next month's Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.
The torch relay, introduced in 1936, has become a colossal undertaking. This year, the flame will be passed between 11,000 runners in 27 countries before it is used to light a cauldron at the opening ceremony on August 13 in Athens, where it will burn throughout the games. It's the first time the torch relay has traveled to Africa and South America.
It's also the first time the relay is going to all the previous host cities. Last week, it reached Stockholm, Sweden, site of the 1912 Olympics. Here, throngs of people lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the famous flame.
"It's a great honor to carry the torch," said Pernilla Wiberg, an Olympic gold medal winner in downhill skiing at the 1992 and 1994 Olympics. This year she ran the last leg in Stockholm. "The Olympic flame represents a great sense of community, as athletes come together from all over the world."
To the ancient Greeks, fire symbolized the creation of the world, renewal, and light. They believed the god Prometheus gave fire to humankind. This divine origin made fire a sacred element, and the Greeks maintained fires in front of their temples.
The inaugural Olympic Games, held in 776 B.C. at the sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia, Greece, were staged in honor of the gods, including Prometheus. Every four years for over a millennium after that, rival city-states put aside their differences and invoked a sacred truce to compete in sports such as chariot racing, boxing, and foot races.
During the games a flame ignited by the sun burned continually on the altar of the goddess Hera, signifying purity, reason, and peace among nations.
Then the games disappeared for more than 1,500 years, until they were reborn in Athens in 1896.
The modern Olympic flame was introduced at the Amsterdam Olympic Games in 1928. There was no formal ceremony. The flame was lit and burned for the duration of the games in a cauldron above the marathon entrance at the Olympic stadium.
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