The secrets of the first Olympic torch relay

Constantin Kondylis carried the first Olympic torch in history. It would save his life.

Constantin Kondylis in Olympia

The Greek village of Olympia is world-famous because of the Olympic Games, which were organised by the ancient Greeks. Every two years, in the run-up to the Summer- and Winter Games, the Olympic flame is lit in Olympia. It is one of the most famous symbols in the world and fascinates everyone involved.

In the village of Olympia this fascination has now faded. Many of its men have been selected for the torch relay, for up until 1984 it was customary for local boys to carry the torch to the municipal boundary and hand it over to someone from the outside world. However, as the flame was on its way to Los Angeles that year a serious disagreement arose between the Greeks and the IOC (International Olympic Committee). The Americans sold the rights to carry the torch at enormous prices, an act the Greeks considered an insult to their cultural heritage. The mayor of Olympia threatened to ban the lighting of the torch so the IOC took charge and saved the ceremony. The boys of the village lost the privilege of carrying the torch.

Constantin Kondylis

In 1936 the Olympic torch relay was organised for the very first time. The honour of becoming the first torch bearer in history was bestowed upon a man named Constantin Kondylis. A striking, clean cut figure and sports fanatic, whose fluency in German, Turkish, Italian and of course Greek, made him the ideal choice. His image was also perfect for the propaganda of Hitler and national socialists.

There to witness the event was Constantin’s younger brother Angelis. I met him on my visit in 2004. He was 80 years old then and lived with his wife two villages down from Olympia, within the same municipal. Constantin had passed away several years earlier. The only tangible reminder Angelis had of his brother was a match box, about two inches wide, with an image of Constantin carrying the torch. Back then, right after the Olympic flame was lit, millions of these boxes were put into circulation.

There was something odd about the image on the box. Kondylis was wearing a loincloth and he was slightly more blonde than in real life. Also, he was carrying the torch in his right instead of left. So there was a clear difference between the ‘Kondylis with torch’ image on the original picture and the one on the matchbox. On the matchbox he looked far more Aryan. Apparently, German propaganda went so far that even on a small matchbox the first Olympic torch bearer had to look like a good Aryan.

Execution

While Angelis was taking a closer look at his Aryan brother, he said: “After the torch relay my brother went to Athens to study law. After that he went to Turkey and Italy. He also worked for the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Tourism”.

That was how Constantin developed and used his language skills, which would come to save his life during the war. Angelis recounted how Constantin was captured by the Germans during the war. He was to be executed. As he was facing the firing squad he stepped forward and spoke in fluent German: “Don’t you know who I am? My name is Constantin Kondylis. In 1936, in Olympia, I was the first Olympic torch bearer.”

The soldiers hesitated and dropped their rifles. They knew about that torch relay, which was an enormous propaganda stunt back in 1936 and carried the Olympic flame to Berlin and on to the Olympic Stadium. It was the first Olympic flame relay in history and it was heavily exploited by the Nazis. The first man in this historic relay had to be someone special — even if he was one minute away from being executed. The soldiers took him away for further investigation.

This investigation showed Kondylis indeed was the first Olympic torch bearer in history. The Germans gave him an official document stating that from this day on he was to be left in peace. Kondylis’ life was saved purely and simply because he was the first person in history to carry an Olympic torch.

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