Inspired by ancient Greek drawings, Carl Diem, a German professor and head of the organizing committee for the 1936 Berlin Games, introduced the idea of an Olympic torch relay. Diem, a Nazi sympathizer, thought the relay would unite the world and spread the Olympic ideals of peace and brotherhood.
The first relay began in Olympia, where a torch was lit by the sun, then passed from runner to runner, crossing seven countries in 12 days before the torch was used to light the flame in Berlin. Since then, the torch relay has remained a prelude to the Olympic Games.
On March 25 this year, the Olympic flame was rekindled from the sun's rays during a traditional ceremony in Olympia. It traveled for seven days in Greece, then remained in a cauldron until June 4, when it began its international journey to Sydney, Australiahost to the last Summer Olympics.
The flame is maintained in a lantern that travels with the relay. A torch is lit from the flame every morning to start that day's relay. The runners then pass the flame from torch to torch.
Crafted by Greek designer Andreas Varotsos, the torch weighs 700 grams (1.5 pounds) and is 68 centimeters (26.8 inches) long. It resembles an olive leaf, an ancient symbol of the Athenian city-state. The olive branch is recognized as a symbol of peace and freedom.
In Stockholm, the 28th stop on the tour, the torch traveled through some of the city's landmarks, such as the Olympic Stadium, the Royal Palace, and the City Hall, where the Nobel Prizes are held each year.
Each runner carries the torch for about 400 meters (440 yards). Most of the runners in Sweden were athletes. But actors such as Tom Cruise and Sylvester Stallone ran with the torch as it passed through Los Angeles, California.
Some runners are ordinary citizens who may have been nominated by friends or family members.
"There is certainly no shortage of people who want to run," said Kristin Fabos, a spokesperson for the Athens games.
Some of the methods to transport the torch have been unconventional. In 2000 several scuba divers carried a specially designed torch underwater. This year, the torch has traveled by elephant in Delhi, India; camel at the Pyramids in Cairo, Egypt; and tram in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Some complain that the relay has grown too big and too expensive. Last year the International Olympic Committee even suggested that the relay should be limited to the host country. Critics say advertising sponsors exert too much control over the event.
That didn't seem to bother the torchbearers in Stockholm.
Ragnar Skanåker, an Olympic gold medal winner in the 50-meter free pistol competition at the 1972 Munich Games, said the torch relay and the Olympics are opportunities for lesser known sports to get recognized.
"I represent a sport that only gets noticed every four years," he said.
Torchbearer David Lega is a disabled swimmer from Sweden who holds seven world records and competed in the 1996 and 2000 Paralympics the "Parallel Olympics" for atheletes with disabilities. To him, the Olympic flame is a vital symbol of peace in particularly troubling times.
"There's so much division in society today," Lega said. "This is a small way of saying that we're all united."
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