In A Nutshell
In 1956, college student Barry Larkin made a fake torch (out of a chair leg and some burning underwear) and jumped into the Olympic relay. He picked up a police escort before he handed the torch off to the mayor of Sydney, who nearly started his Olympic speech holding a flaming plum pudding can on a stick. He pulled this prank in protest of the continuation of a ceremony that had been started only two decades before, by Nazi Germany, as propaganda for the Third Reich and symbolic of the torch they believed they were carrying from ancient civilizations to the present.
The Whole Bushel
The Olympic Torch Relay is an epic, solemn, impressively majestic opening to the celebration of the world’s best athletes, just like it was designed to be. (More on that part in a minute.) In 1956, the relay was particularly epic. Australia was hosting, and the torch runners needed to fight through torrential downpours and scorching temperatures.
Sydney was ready.
The plan was that the runner, Harry Dillon, was going to hand the torch to Sydney mayor Pat Hills. After a brief speech, the torch would be passed on to the next runner, and the next leg of the relay would be off.
At 9:30 AM, the first runner came into sight. He was carrying a torch and surrounded by a police escort, who were tasked with keeping back the crowd. There were all the cheers and photographs you can imagine, and the runner, soaked with sweat, hopped up onto the steps of the town hall and handed off the torch.
The mayor accepted it, and was just about to begin his speech when someone whispered to him. He wasn’t holding the torch, he was holding a chair leg that had been painted silver. On the top, someone had attached a plum pudding can, and in the can, burning heartily away, was a pair of kerosene-soaked underwear.
The mayor managed to regain his composure, claimed it was a trial run, and everything reset for the real thing.
The first runner was university student Barry Larkin, who (along with a few mates) had staged the whole thing as a protest to what was essentially a Nazi tradition.
The Summer Olympics were held in Berlin in 1936, and Hitler was in a bit of a quandary. On one hand, he absolutely didn’t want to buy into the games, which he thought were “an invention of Jews and Freemasons.” But, the Olympics had potential as a vehicle for propaganda in the Nazi war machine.
So a propaganda machine they became. The torch relay was suggested by Carl Diem, secretary general of the organizing committee of the Berlin games. Everything about it was created for those games, even though it was claimed that the torch relay was an ancient ceremony dating back to the dawn of the games—that was all propaganda, too. The relay started in Greece and ended in Berlin, and there was all kinds of symbolism inherent in it. It was a quite literal path from the old to the new, tracing the development of an Aryan heritage, putting Germany right in line with other great civilizations throughout history.
At the same time, Germany started excavating some of the ancient Olympic sites in Greece. And the lighting ceremony itself? Also propaganda. The sponsor of the torches was the Krupp Company, one of the largest manufacturers of Nazi armaments. The first torch ever lit in the Olympic relay was used to light Krupp furnaces, which then started cranking out cannons.
And the Olympic relay, perhaps strangely, remains a part of the games. Larkin and his cohorts didn’t approve of the Nazi ceremony’s place in the world games, but their outrageous prank has been relegated mostly to the footnotes of Olympic history. The torch itself was kept for a while but was eventually thrown in the garbage.
Show Me The Proof
Museum of Hoaxes: The Olympic Underwear Relay
The Atlantic: The Nazi Origins of the Olympic Flame Relay