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OLYMPIA: Greek actress Mary Mina, playing the role of the High Priestess, lights the torch during the flame lighting ceremony for the Paris 2024 Olympics Games at the ancient temple of Hera on the Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece. – AFP
OLYMPIA: Greek actress Mary Mina, playing the role of the High Priestess, lights the torch during the flame lighting ceremony for the Paris 2024 Olympics Games at the ancient temple of Hera on the Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece. – AFP

Fire and fury: The Olympic torch relay

PARIS: The Olympic torch has been into space, deep underwater, the North Pole and even scaled Mount Everest. As the 2024 torch crosses Greece before heading for France, AFP looks back at some of the most dramatic moments of past relays.

Blazing jocks

One of the most memorable stunts involving the torch pageantry dates to 1956 ahead of the Melbourne Games when an Australian university student named Barry Larkin fooled crowds with a homemade torch topped by burning underpants.

Larkin managed to get his torch—a wooden chair leg crowned with a metal pudding container topped with the fiery underwear—up the stairs of Sydney’s Town Hall and deliver it to city mayor Pat Hills, cheered on by tens of thousands of onlookers.

Runaway jaguar

A 17-year-old jaguar named Juma was paraded in chains for photos as the torch passed through the Amazon in northern Brazil ahead of the Rio Games in 2016. But Juma escaped its handlers and four tranquilliser darts failed to slow it down. After it threatened a vet, soldiers opened fire on the jaguar and shot dead the animal.

Cauldron drama

The climax of the relay—the lighting of the Olympic cauldron—has not always gone smoothly. In Seoul in 1988, dozens of doves released earlier in the opening ceremony alighted on the cauldron. When the flame was lit, several of the birds were incinerated, to the horror of watching spectators. In 1996 in Atlanta, viewers around the world held their breath as boxing superstar Muhammad Ali momentarily conquered his trembling due to Parkinson’s disease to defiantly raise the Olympic flame and then slowly lower it to light the cauldron. In Barcelona in 1992, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo fired a burning arrow at the seven-storey high cauldron to light the flame. As it sailed over the cauldron, the gas from a jet inside ignited the flame. The charred arrow landed safely in a sandbox.

Heated protests

The torch relay has been the target of several protests, most notably during the run-up to Beijing 2008 as demonstrators took China to task over its Tibet policy. Protests started as soon as the flame was lit in ancient Olympia and dogged the relay throughout its journey to China, notably as it passed through London, Paris and San Francisco. In Japan, monks at an ancient Buddhist temple pulled out of hosting a torch ceremony because of the Chinese crackdown in Tibet.—AFP

No cheering, please

Overseas fans were barred from Tokyo 2020 to limit the risk of COVID-19 infection when the Games finally got underway in 2021 after a year’s delay. The torch relay set the tone for the subdued games, with public sections of the relay scrapped in areas where virus cases were spiking, including the final leg in Japan’s capital. In areas where masked spectators were allowed to gather, they were under strict instructions not to shout or cheer, for fear of spreading the virus through their saliva. The honour of lighting the cauldron in an eerily empty Tokyo stadium fell to tennis star Naomi Osaka. – AFP

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