What is approximately one meter long, comprised of twenty two silvery and spindly aluminum reeds, two brass cuffs inscribed with historical dates and locations, a grip made of Georgia pecan wood, has symbolically had thousands of hands clutching its center, and is notably burned to a crisp at the top? (I know, I know; it could be anything, and an archive full of objects fit the bill).
I have just described the 1996 Olympic Games torch.
On a summer night in a quiet small town in middle Georgia, a well known community leader traveled across the expansive greenery of Georgia College’s main campus, Olympic torch ablaze in hand, determined to reach the end of his relay, while dozens of pairs of eyes watched from the sidelines, a crowd of people illuminating Milledgeville, Georgia as considerably as the Olympic flame. Since 2015, it has been in the possession of Special Collections at the Ina Dillard Russell Library.
The idea for the Olympic flame was first introduced in the 1928 Amsterdam Games where it burned bright and remained lit through the entire two-week ceremony. It has been a tradition ever since. In 1936, the first relay from Olympia to Berlin was introduced by Dr. Carl Diem (who served as the Secretary General of the Organizing Committee for the Games that year) and has also remained a tradition ever since. Scholars on Ancient Greece say the flame burns in dedication to the Geek God Hera, the goddess of marriage and family and the Queen of Olympus. What started out as an ode to a figure of Greek mythology has become intrinsic in the passing of the Olympic flame, a flame that represents “the light of spirit, knowledge, and life”.
The basic route of the relay isn’t an easily organized straight shot from location to location. In each Games, the route is carefully constructed first by the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) with the transport of the torch to Athens where the first modern Olympic Games took place in 1896 at the Panathinaiko Stadium, also known as the Panathenaic. From there it is turned over to the Olympic Games Organizing Committee (OGOC) where the rest of the route, including the journey to the host city, is planned for the duration. Usually the route incorporates a thematic element, which ensures the popular torch relay remain innovative and exciting every two years.
The 1996 torch’s design was created by Peter Mastrogiannis from Malcolm Greer Designers and was inspired by classical Greek architecture. To me, the torch resembles what could look like an ancient scroll. Its 22 aluminum “reeds” are representative of the total number of modern Olympic Games editions that year. The first gold band displays the names of all Olympic Games host cities past and, the other, the emblem of the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games and the Quilt of Leaves motif.
The wooden center where the torch is gripped was made from a donation from local farmers, symbolizing the connection between Heaven, Earth, and the Olympic flame.
The torch relay started in Greece on March 30th and ended in Atlanta on July 19th, taking a total of 111 days. The number of torchbearers total consisted of 800 in Greece and 12,467 across the United States. When the torch finally reached its destination, Muhammed Ali was given the honor in lighting the cauldron.
Torchbearers are required to be of at least twelve years of age and often find themselves in the form of well known community leaders, role models, mentors, or in some way have been recognized for exemplary accomplishments. 5,500 “community heroes” are chosen out of the 40,000 applicants to claim the role of torchbearer and former Georgia College President Ed Speir had the honor of carrying the torch through a notable part of Milledgeville—an honor not even a ruptured Achilles tendon could prevent him from partaking in. So determined he was that he was wheeled to the torch which remains surrounded by shrubbery at the left hand corner of main campus when facing Hancock.
Georgia College continues to light this torch for special events and occasions. Other Milledgeville torchbearers that year included Richard Kauffman and Gabriela Bardizbanian. Milledgeville saw more than just the lighting of the torch that year. Earlier in the year, before the games began, Milledgeville was chosen as the location for pre-Olympics badminton training for eight countries competing in this event. As one reporter described it that year, “Badminton is an overlooked game coming to a bypassed town, and both of them, in their own ways, are a marriage of grace and fire.”
When I was younger I liked to believe there was only one torch made for each games, one torch passed from person to person and city to city. That it was handed off between thousands of fingers and the same torch traveled across Greece and took the ultimate cross country trek across The United States. Though I know otherwise from the televised relay and realize the complications and unlikely probability in this sentiment, I still like to believe our Special Collections houses the torch from 1996 that saw it all. But when I think about how many people gathered in Milledgeville that July evening, in many ways, I think it did.
The video below is a compilation of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta depicting each torchbearer on their relay route, notable landmarks, and the moment the flame was passed on to continue its radiant burn.
Click the links below and watch as Special Collections’ Graduate Assistants participate in their own legs of the race, albeit in 2016. There is never a dull moment here in Special Collections, both in work and in fun.
“1932-1992: History of Olympic Torch Relays.” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-rv/sports/olympics/longterm/torches/history.htm. Accessed 28 October 2016.
“Atlanta 1996 Torch Relay.” International Olympic Committee, https://www.olympic.org/atlanta-1996-torch-relay. Accessed 28 October 2016.
Bynum, Russ. “Olympic Torch Swings Through Georgia’s Pre-Civil War Capital.” Associated Press News Archive, 13 July 1996, http://www.apnewsarchive.com/1996/Olympic-Torch-Swings-Through-Georgia-s-Pre-Civil-War-Capital/id-3e73ca683c042534f7e38eb4ad84a930. Accessed 28 October 2016.
Swick, Thomas. “A Good Town is Hard to Find.” Sun Sentinel, 30 June 1996, http://articles.sun-sentinel.com/1996-06-30/travel/9606210255_1_badminton-new-zealand-town. Accessed 28 October 2016.