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The feminine connection to the Olympic flame

The eyes of the world will be on Pyeongchang, South Korea, this week as torchbearers light the cauldron for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games. If you are like me, the Olympic flame will capture your imagination and inspire you with its spellbinding power. It represents the light of life and celebrates the indomitable spirit and extraordinary achievement of Olympic athletes and, by extension, ourselves.

Few people know about the flame’s feminine origins. I witnessed the importance of women and the Olympic flame when I attended the ritual lighting ceremony for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games torch relay in the ancient city of Olympia, Greece. I credit some measure of the power of the flame to the feminine divine expressed in this thought-provoking ceremony.

I traveled to Greece with a dozen or so other Olympic officials. After a crazy bus ride from Athens to the site of the Olympic Games in classical times, we arrived at an archaeological site adjacent to the Temple of Zeus.

Here, about a dozen priestesses summoned the sun god Apollo to light the Olympic flame. They used a parabolic mirror to reflect sunlight on an altar until a flame appeared. No matches, no friction … just the hot sun piercing the earth.

I asked an Olympic official in attendance the significance of the female beckoners and protectors of the flame. He told me women represent “hearth and home.” He said that’s where the human spirit is born, and the connection between the light of life and women is very real.

After capturing the flame, the high priestess prayed to Apollo and Zeus. The flame was then placed in a small ceramic pot and escorted in a female-only procession toward a small grove of trees. During the walk, a woman cut off a branch from an olive tree to be carried with the flame pot as a symbol of peace.

In the grove the priestesses performed an ancient ballet. A young man entered the grove, holding high an unlit torch. I beamed with pride as I saw the labeling on his athletic regalia: “Salt Lake City: 2002.” The high priestess greeted him, and he approached the altar, knelt to the flame and priestess and lifted his torch toward the sky. The high priestess, holding an olive branch in one hand and an Olympic torch in the other, touched the unlit torch. She then signaled another priestess, who released a white dove from a small wooden cage. The torch relay began with the runner exiting the grove with the first torch in hand.

In the 2002 Olympic Winter Games the torch was carried by 12,012 torchbearers and traveled through 46 of the 50 United States. It was carried on a Delta Air Lines jet, embraced by Muhammad Ali and taken to our nation’s capital in honor of the 9/11 victims.

I hiked to Delicate Arch the morning the NBC "Today" show spotlighted the arrival of the flame to Utah. I’ll never forget the imagery — a freestanding arch, the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the background, a TV helicopter in the air and a Native American chief passing the flame from his torch to his granddaughter’s. That flame, nurtured by women, had come from the sun, been celebrated in an ancient grove, crossed an ocean, appeared in nearly every state and now started its journey in Utah to Rice-Eccles Stadium.

It’s no accident that the theme of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games was “Light the fire within.” That’s exactly what the Olympics are meant to do. The sacrifice and achievement of the athletes spark a flame within us — we can run a little faster, jump a little higher and be even stronger in our everyday lives.

It’s been 16 years since Salt Lake City had the honor to host the Winter Games. I expect we will have another chance to do it in my lifetime. If we get that chance, let’s all celebrate the Olympic flame and the feminine divine embodied in it.