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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Olympic Torch, Rings Linked to Third Reich

NEW YORK -- Call him a spoilsport, but as a student of antiquity, David Young feels compelled to point out that the Olympic torch now heading to Atlanta is not a tradition dating to ancient Greece.


In the July-August issue of Archaeology magazine, the University of Florida classics professor recalls that the long-distance torch relay originated 60 years ago, when Hitler tried to turn the 1936 Berlin Olympics into a celebration of the Third Reich.


Not only that, but it was a Nazi propaganda film that created the myth that the five-ring Olympic symbol is from ancient Greece -- a mistake numerous books have repeated.


"It actually is common knowledge -- at least among people who know a lot about the Olympics -- that the torch ceremony began at Berlin," Young said from his home near Gainesville, Florida.


Young's second book on the games, "The Modern Olympics: A Struggle for Revival," is about to be published by Johns Hopkins University Press. He says the torch relay was begun by Carl Diem, a German who had been planning the 1916 Olympic Games at Berlin when they were canceled because of World War I.


Twenty years later, Diem organized the 1936 games under Hitler. "Diem, seeking to glamorize them with an ancient aura, staged the first lighting of the Olympic flame, now a hallowed ritual," Young writes.


When the torches were lit at Berlin they carried the logo of the manufacturer, Krupp, the huge munitions company that armed Germany for two world wars, Young says. Young said it remains unclear whether Diem had Nazi sympathies.


Olympic officials don't deny the torch ceremony's origins. "It began in Berlin in 1936, that's true," said Francois Carrard, director-general of the International Olympic Committee.


The interlocking circles were designed in 1913 by France's Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC, for a 1914 World Olympic Congress in Paris. He apparently wanted the rings to symbolize the first five Olympic Games, but the congress broke up when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering World War I.


Revived for the 1920 games at Antwerp, Belgium, the ring logo came to symbolize the "five continents" -- a European concept in which North and South America are one, Young says. The myth of their ancient origin began with Leni Riefenstahl, the German cinematographer who extolled the 1936 Games in the 12-hour film "Olympia."


For the film, Young says, Riefenstahl had the rings carved into a rock at Delphi, Greece, as a backdrop for torch bearers.


"Years later, American authors Lynn and Gray Poole observed the old movie prop, mistook it for an ancient inscription, and published their error, which soon spread to other books, where it continues to mislead the unwary," Young wrote.