The Olympic Torchbearers Who Lit Up the Games Throughout the Years

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It’s an honor that’s been given to a 12-year-old schoolgirl and a Crown Prince alike. 

Since the tradition began 85 years ago, torchbearers from around the world have helped carry a symbolic flame from Olympia, Greece, to the international city hosting the Olympic games, making for the ultimate worldwide relay. 

Celebrities including Harry Potter‘s Rupert Grint and Star Trek‘s Patrick Stewart have escorted the light on one part of its journey. But one final torchbearer sets the Olympic cauldron ablaze, which fires up the Opening Ceremony and pays homage to the origin of the global event. 

The tradition began in ancient Greece, where they honored the gods by lighting a flame at the altar. The flame was first introduced into the modern Olympics at the 1928 Amsterdam event, though the relay began in 1936 with 3,000 runners passing the torch into Nazi Germany for the Berlin games.

For this year’s Tokyo Olympics, about 10,000 relay participants transported the torch (designed to resemble a cherry blossom) to Tokyo, uniting under the theme “Hope Lights Our Way,” according to NBC.

During the Opening Ceremony on Friday, July 23, tennis star Naomi Osaka kicked things off by lighting the cauldron, which burst to life using hydrogen in order to offset carbon emissions.

The flame was first lit over a year ago, in March 2020, and taken to Japan. However, before it began its tour around the host country, the games were postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. The torch was later displayed at the Olympic Museum in Tokyo, before the race began again in March 2021.

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“For the past year, as the entire world underwent a difficult period, the Olympic flame was kept alive quietly but powerfully,” Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto said at the launch event in March. “The small flame did not lose hope, and just like the cherry blossom buds that are ready to bloom, it was waiting for this day.”

Tune in to NBC to watch this year’s Olympic flame finally light up the games, after a year of waiting in the wings.

Here’s look back at some of the torchbearers that have ignited the Olympic cauldron in decades past.

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1936

Fritz Schilgen lit the cauldron in Berlin during the first Olympic relay 85 years ago. Video footage of his performance was used in Nazi propaganda, according to Inside the Games. The International Olympic Committee later apologized for sharing a video of the event in 2020. The German athlete, who died in 2005 at age 99, again carried the torch in April 1996 ahead of the Atlanta Olympics, igniting the cauldron at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin.

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1948

John Mark was the final torchbearer at the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics, three years after WWII. He was seen running in front of the VIP stand at Wembley Stadium (best known as the home of the Football Association), while members of the organizing committee gave the British sprinter a round of applause.

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1956

Oops! Olympic athlete Guido Caroli took a little spill while bearing the torch at the 1956 Olympics in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The Italian speed skater fell onto the ice and “scrambled quickly to his feet to complete his tour of honor,” according to the original caption for this archival photo.

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1968

From record setter to history maker! Enriqueta Basilio, who was Mexico’s record holder for the 80 meter hurdle, became the first woman to light the final flame. The 20 year old was photographed rehearsing in July 1968 (right), before igniting the Olympic cauldron at the Mexico City games in October. During the big moment, she ascended a giant staircase in front of all the spectators (left).

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1984

For Los Angeles’ turn as host, Olympic gold medalist Rafer Johnson carried the symbolic torch through the Memorial Coliseum, after it had traveled through 42 states in more than 80 days.

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1988

Clad in Canada’s signature red and white, young figure skater Robyn Perry sparked the flame of the Olympic cauldron during the 1988 Calgary Olympics. She was just 12 years old at the time. 

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1994

His Majesty has entered the building. Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway, had the honor of being the final torchbearer at his country’s Olympics in the 1990s. The heir apparent was 20 at the time and is now 48 years old, married to Mette-Marit, Crown Princess of Norway, and a father of two.

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1996

Boxing champ Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremony of the 1996 event in Atlanta, Georgia, which marked the Olympics’ centennial celebration.

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2002

Gold medal winners of the U.S. hockey team from 1980 were reunited for a special mission at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. They cheered while lighting the flame in USA jerseys. 

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2004

Surf’s up in Greece: Nikolaos Kaklamanakis won a gold medal for windsurfing in 1996 and was back for more at the Athens Olympics to set fire to the Olympic cauldron.

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2006

Italian skier Stefania Belmondo waved to her fans, while showing off the Olympic flame during the Opening Ceremony at the Turin Olympics.  

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2008

Olympic gymnast Li Ning put his skills to good use at the Beijing games. The Chinese athlete flew through the air at the memorable Opening Ceremony, while protecting the sacred flame on its last leg.

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2010

From left to right: Paralympic Games athlete Rick Hansen, ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky, speed skater Catriona Le May Doan, basketball star Steve Nash and skier Nancy Greene were chosen to light up the arena at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. 

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2014

Russian ice skater Irina Rodnina and Russian hockey player Vladislav Tretyak shared the stage at the Sochi Olympics, as they raced to the cauldron to complete their task.

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2016

Long distance runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima triumphantly lifted the torch over his head at the Rio Olympic games.

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2018

South Korean figure skater Kim Yuna dressed the part in an icy white ensemble for her moment at the most recent Winter Olympics.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics Opening Ceremony airs tonight, July 23 on NBC.