According to legend, fire was stolen from the gods by Prometheus and was given to the mortals, being the reason for his punishment by Zeus. Fire was present at many of the temples in Olympia and during the Olympic Games, a fire was kept burning throughout the celebration of the competition on the altar of Hestia and at the temples of Zeus and Hera.
Today the Olympic flame is lit in the ancient site of Olympia, using the same technique that was used in the original Games, lit by reflection of sunlight in a parabolic mirror at the temple of Hera. The day before the ceremony, a rehearsal is held and the priestess lights the torch and a back up flame is kept in the event that conditions do not cooperate on the actual day of the lighting ceremony.
The ceremony is organised several months before the opening celebration of the Olympic Games. An actress dressed as a ceremonial priestess, in the robes of the ancient Greeks, lights the torch from a parabolic mirror that focuses the sun’s rays to a single point. The energy from the sun creates a great deal of heat. The priestess holds a torch, and the heat ignites the fuel in the torch, sparking a flame. The flame is then carried in a fire pot to the altar in the ancient Olympic stadium, where the priestess of Demeter was sitting, and it is used to light the first runner’s torch, giving the sign for the torch relay to begin.
The first runner in the Olympic torch relay lights a marble altar in the Grove in honour of the man who revived the Olympic Games, and afterwards sets off, beginning the traditional race to Athens, ending up at the host city on the day of the opening ceremony in the main stadium. The final torch bearer is kept a secret until the last moment. He/She runs towards the cauldron, often placed at a high point of the stadium and lights the cauldron. It is considered a great honour to be asked to light the Olympic Flame. After being lit, the flame continues to burn throughout the Olympics, and is extinguished at the closing ceremony.
For the Winter Games, the torch lighting at Olympia was instituted in 1964 for that year’s winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria. The handover to the first runner in Olympia begins at the monument to Pierre de Coubertin, which is located above the stadium, in the grounds of I.O.A.
The flame was reintroduced in the 1928 Games but the modern convention of moving the Olympic Flame via a relay system from Olympia to the Olympic venue began with the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, and has been a part of the Olympic Games ever since.