With a span of twenty-eight centuries, despite long intervals of interruption, The Olympic Games are the oldest official celebrations in the world.
They are, by far, considered the most important sports event and are also regarded as the most popular festivities on the planet, surpassing in universal appeal even Carnival.
Now that the cauldron will soon be lit in London, it would be interesting to dwell on the essence of the Olympic Flame.
Ancient Greece was a jumble of small sovereign states frequently at war against each other. Despite their differences, the small despots realized the necessity of creating a sense of unity in this fragmented world. This unity would be conceived on a higher level than the administrative, thus posing no threat to the authority of local rulers.
And so they came up with the notion of a nation. This nation would comprise all states binding them together by a common language and a systematized society built on a set of ethics stemming from a common religion: the Olympian (the Greek gods).
One of the most striking features of this Olympian religion was the introduction of the notion of contest as a means of improving one's self by overcoming one's barriers and in this way achieving the Greek ideal of excellence. Thus most religious festivals included competitions of various activities -- drama, poetry and above all, athletics.
Mount Olympus, the highest peak in the Greek world gave its name to the religion as it was the point on earth closest to the sky: the natural habitat of the gods. For its counterpart on earth, the cradle of the cult of Olympian gods was selected: the plain of Olympia in the Peloponese.
Olympia is set in a plain of wheat fields surrounded by pine-covered rolling hills. As one approaches the archeological site, huge oak trees (assigned to Zeus ruler of the Olympian gods) rise and spread their shadows. And next to the a hill with lush vegetation dedicated to Zeus' father, Cronus.
But if one wonders on this same location on a full moon, one is bound to listen through the stillness to the elongated croaking of the frogs, mixing with the whistle of nightbirds and the tinkling of the running water rising from below. This is a mesmerizing chorus that does strange things to the soul. This description may sound like a New Age cliché, yet if one takes into consideration that the Olympic Games in Antiquity were always celebrated on the first full moon after the Summer Solstice, then this atmospheric landscape lends itself to a whole different meaning. For it was on this consecrated ground that the priestesses of Hera (wife of Zeus) would spend the night in meditation on the eve of the Olympic Games
It is in modern-day Athens that we can find the key to this.
One of the trendiest streets of the city is Dionysus Aeropagites street, skirting the Acropolis. It is lined with some of the most beautiful buildings in Athens. In front of a townhouse people walk up to the security camera and hurl insults. This is the residence of a former minister of defense who has been imprisoned accused of embezzling hundreds of millions of euros. It is the sight of an offended and resentful nation trying to vent its anger. A few doors further down, in front of an unassuming pre-war building, people stop and nod to each other, pointing at a window on a higher floor with reverence. This is the residence of one of Athens' most esteemed citizens, the nonagenarian choreographer Maria Hors.
Generations of drama students consider Miss Hors a master who infused their lives with new meaning. For the past forty years she has been responsible for the rite of the Olympic Flame lighting ceremonies. Herself the assistant of Koula Pratsika, the woman who revived the ceremony of the Olympian torch in the 1930s, miss Horse has been selecting the priestesses and head priestesses in order to revive the tradition; her criterion: "the beauty of the heart." "When handling such strong forces as the solar energy, you have to be clean and humble about it," laying at the same time one of the most important principles of the Olympic spirit.
At the same time it is necessary for a spiritual rise to the occasion as the ceremony is very bare with the head priestess surrounded by her vestals, invoking the sun god Apollo. The head priestess holds a torch, she places it in a cauldron and with the assistance of mirrors the Olympic Flame lights up by itself.
"As you bring down the rays from the sun you reshape it into a flame. The moment when the first thread of smoke begins to rise betraying the birth of the fire is wonderful. This must be the essence of the votive candles that burn inside churches "says Katerina Didaskalou, head priestess for the Los Angeles and Seoul Olympics.
In the ages before telephone and telegraph, fire was used as a beacon signaling over land and heralding the occurrence of great events like the fall of Troy, or the victory at Waterloo. The torch relay announces the arrival of world peace.
After its lighting, the Flame leaves Olympia, spends one night in Athens (the site of the first revival of the Olympic Games) and then embarks on a long journey until it reaches the city hosting the Olympic Games. As it passes from various communities, it generates all sorts of enthusiasm.
"In the Far East people would line up the streets and observe respectfully the torch relay for the Seoul Games. In Korea I once gave my assigned secretary a kiss on the cheek. She was thrilled and told me she would bring back the flame and that would light up her household. During the relay for the Los Angeles Games, Americans were more attracted by its sporting edge A lot of people were puzzled on how the flame was ignited" says Miss Didaskalou. During the Melbourne Games relay, physically disabled people would take to their wheelchairs and approach the Flame. "After all, you don't get to see the sun being carried down your street every day," says Miss Horse
Unlike any other athletic event in the history of mankind the Olympic Games present the athletes with a unique dimension: immortality!
In Ancient Greece, if the rulers of a state laid claim on a certain territory and wished to justify their demand they would resort to mythology. By mobilizing a god or a hero and adding a relevant incident in his life, they would associate him with the land under claim so that, according to the legend, the disputed territory would be considered rightfully theirs. For instance, Central Athens (my own constituency) is related to Athena, Poseidon, Aegeus, Theseus, while countless saints and apostles carry this patronage tradition into the Judeo-Christian era.
The Olympic Games mobilized no other hero than Hercules. He came to Olympia to race, and his footprint multiplied by six hundred created the physical length of the first racing track which he named the "stadium." Jason too was responsible for the creation of the Pentathlon (joined javelin and disk throwing with wrestling, long jump and running) into one sport, thus creating the first "super athletes."
But the most relevant myth concerning the Olympics is that of King Pelops. The son of Tantalus, Pelops drove his chariot into Pisa (a city neighboring Olympia) and after having beaten and killed (by divine intervention) the local king Oenomaus married his daughter and became forefather of the Greek nation.
Pelops was buried in Olympia and an olive was planted net to his grave. It was in homage of his legendary chariot race that the Ancient Olympic Games were founded. By celebrating the hero who brought the nation together, peace was guaranteed for the duration of the Games. At the same time the athletes were coming in direct lineage with their heroes, inspired by their achievements. Furthermore, by winning a contest, they themselves would cross over and step into the realm of the myth. Their humble trophy: a branch from the sacred olive tree of Pelops
The passing of the Olympic torch from hand to hand, community to community and generation to generation has been inspiring people around the world for centuries. For the three weeks this same Flame will be burning over the skies of London It has been carrying the principles that miss Hors infused to her priestesses on a moonlit night in distant Olympia. Guidelines that are echoing from the beginning of time and the essence of what's best in the human being.
Chances are that in these London Olympics Yelena Isibayeva, the women's pole jumping champion, will win another gold medal and break a new record. By so doing she will be sending the world into a frenzy of excitement, because she will have stretched the boundaries of humanity a centimeter higher.