Ripley’s Believe It or Not! recently purchased a torch from the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France, at auction for $200,000! With this purchase, just two torches remain between Ripley’s and a complete collection.
Here’s everything you need to know about the newest addition and the incredible collection it will join.
Rekindling an Ancient Fire
More than 1,500 years after Roman Emperor Theodosius I banned the ancient Olympics in Greece, the Olympic Games were reprised on April 6, 1896. Fittingly, the competition re-commenced in Athens, presided over by Greece’s King Georgios I. A crowd of 60,000 people attended, and athletes from 13 nations participated.
By 1924, the second set of games dedicated to winter sports began in Chamonix, France. Initially called the “International Winter Sports Week,” the event quickly morphed into the cold-weather counterpart to the Summer Olympic Games. Over the years, as the addition of the Winter Games attests, the Olympics exploded in popularity and size. And the 2024 Olympic Games slated for Paris will attract more than 10,000 participants from 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs). (Technically, athletes are picked by NOCs, not nations, to participate in the Games.)
No matter the size of the competition or distance from the ancient past, the flame remains central to the celebration of athletic achievement. Today, the Games’ organizers still light the torch as the ancients did, relying on a parabolic mirror (known as a skaphia) to direct the sun’s rays inward, creating intense, combustible heat. This torch-lighting ceremony is presided over by priestesses dressed in the white gauzy robes of Classical Greece.
An Ancient Invention Meets Modern Technology
While the torches used during the ancient Olympic Games saw few (if any) innovations, their modern counterparts must meet a few requirements. The need for cutting-edge innovation is driven by the challenges the flames face during their worldwide relay race from Olympia, Greece, to the final Olympiad destination. The first relay was held during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, and the Greek runner Konstantin Kondylis made history as the first runner, departing Olympia with the torch in hand.
Because of the nature of the relay, torches must withstand extreme weather, including intense heat, snow, rain, and high winds. Torches must also be able to burn well past the forecasted length of a given leg of the journey to account for runner mishaps and delays. But there is more to Olympic torches than practical considerations.
They must also harmonize with the visual themes (and destination) of each year’s Games, making them highly collectible. To achieve the right look, world-famous designers or firms often craft them. Today, Olympic torches are manufactured on a large scale, often permitting runners in the relay to keep the one they carried as memorabilia. Such was not always the case, which makes assembling a complete collection daunting.
As it currently stands, only two private collectors on the planet own every single torch model. But Ripley’s is on a mission to bring these torches to the public.
A Closer Look at the Grenoble Torch
Designed by Roger Excoffon, the 1968 torch is decorated by three unique silver logo plaques on its sides.
The Grenoble flame was lit in Olympia, Greece, on December 16, 1967 with the initial torchbearer being Tassos Bahouros. The relay went first to Mount Olympus and then onward to Athens. From Athens, the torch was flown to Paris with Alain Mimoun (3-time silver winner in London 1948, 2-time silver winner in Helsinki 1952, and marathon gold winner in Melbourne 1956) being the first torchbearer, and Alan Calmat (figure skating silver in Innsbruck 1964) being the last torchbearer at the Opening Ceremony on February 6, 1968.
Believe It or Not!, 5,000 torchbearers carried the flame through France, sharing the small number of torches made for the relay.
Two More to Go
Collecting Olympic torches comes with a hefty price. Individual pieces can cost tens of thousands of dollars. But as one collector of torches, Lucky Burke, argues, they outperform other sports memorabilia by a long shot: “They transcend age and politics. Young people don’t always know who older baseball players are, but they all know about the Olympics.”
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Where can you see Ripley’s expansive collection today? According to John Corcoran, Ripley’s director of traveling shows and Guinness World Records attraction development, “Many of our torches are currently on display around the world. As those attractions are renovated, we are slowly returning the torches to our Archives. Our goal is to develop a display that features all of the torches together.”
To complete the collection, Ripley’s has its sights set on two more torches from the Games in Helsinki, Finland, and Innsbruck, Austria. Why the trouble getting these last two models? The Helsinki Games only have 22 torch models left, with very few in private hands. As for Innsbruck, there are only one or two original torches and very few authorized replicas.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com
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