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Rings, torch have ties to Hitler's Nazi propaganda
ATHENS, Greece - The most beloved emblems of the modern Olympics have a decidedly dark past.
The torch relay that culminates in the ceremonial lighting of the flame at Olympic stadium was ordered by Adolf Hitler, who tried to turn the 1936 Berlin Games into a celebration of the Third Reich.
And it was Hitler's Nazi propaganda machine that popularized the five interlocking rings as the symbol of the Games.
Today, both are universally recognized icons of the Olympics. But historians say neither had much, if anything, to do with the Games born centuries ago in Ancient Olympia.
"The torch relay is so ingrained in the modern choreography that most people today assume it was a revival of a pagan tradition - unaware that it was actually concocted for Hitler's Games in Berlin," author Tony Perrottet writes in a new book, The Naked Olympics.
A sacred flame did burn 24 hours a day at Olympia. And relay racers passed a torch to light a sacrificial cauldron at some other ancient festivals. But the ancient Greeks opened their Olympics by word of mouth, sending heralds - not torchbearers - running through the streets.
The modern tradition of spiriting the Olympic torch to the main stadium didn't become a fixture of the Games until 1936, when a 12-day run opened the Games in Berlin.
The Olympic rings, another universally recognized symbol of the games since they made their debut in 1920 at Antwerp, Belgium, have their own Nazi connection.
Originally, they were designed in 1913 by Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the IOC and father of the modern Olympic movement, for a 1914 World Olympic Congress in Paris. They were supposed to symbolize the first five Olympics, but the congress disbanded when Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, triggering World War I.
Leni Riefenstahl, the Olympia filmmaker who also chronicled Hitler's rise to power, had the rings carved into a stone altar at the ancient Greek city of Delphi, spawning the myth that they were a symbol dating more than two millennia.
With Hitler's influence, the rings became part of the Nazi pageantry at Berlin - and they've come to symbolize the Olympics ever since.