After all these years, the Olympic flame still burns brightly for Robert

One of Australia’s top Olympic Torch collectors is bringing his complete set to Paniyiri Festival for all to experience. 

May 16, 2024, updated May 17, 2024
Robert Innes with one of his collection. (Image: Jess / Vethaak Media )

Robert Innes with one of his collection. (Image: Jess / Vethaak Media )

Robert Innes owns 34 Olympic torches, an incredible collection that spans from the first modern Olympic Games in 1896 to the Beijing Winter Olympics of 2022.  

Innes’ collection comprises one of the five complete sets of Olympic torches in Australia. A complete set can be defined in multiple ways in the torch-collecting community but is generally understood to be a collection that contains a torch (or replica torch) from each of the 20 Olympic games since the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, where the torch relay was first introduced. 

That’s right, the Olympic torch relay was invented by Nazis, one of the few products of that particular cultural regime that the modern world has decided to quietly continue using, like the Volkswagen Beetle and Fanta. 

A distinction of Innes’ collection is that, unlike the other four complete Australian sets, his is not stored behind glass. Instead he regularly shares them in schools and other community settings, such as the upcoming Paniyiri Greek Festival.

“My deal is I take my torches to the people,” said Innes, “And I’ve been doing that since 2008. So people get to hold them, kids get to hold them. It’s hard to estimate, but probably 40,000 kids have held my torches. No one else does it in the world.”

The Paniyiri Festival which will take place at Musgrave Park in South Brisbane on Saturday May 18 and Sunday May 19, 2024, represents a unique opportunity to see all 32 of Innes’ torches, Summer and Winter, displayed publicly for the first time. 

Previously Innes had taken his collection of summer torches to Parliament House in 2022 in honour of the upcoming 2032 Brisbane Olympics.

Innes’ Summer collection on display at Parliament House 2022 (Image: supplied).

“I mentor for a charity called Inspiring Brighter Futures. We took 30 of the graduates of that program from various schools around the state with my torches to Parliament House,” Innes recalled. 

“And that was a very proud experience for me, just to get these kids to a point where they could interact with parliamentarians and with the Premier. The kids, they had access to the torches. They could take parliamentarians around. They could pick them up. They could explain what the torch was. It was actually a really incredible experience.”

There will be a static display of the torches at the Greek Club during the festival and talks from Innes on Saturday and Sunday, as well as a ceremony with young people in traditional Greek dress presenting the torches.

“This year’s Cultural Program at Paniyiri commemorates Greece being the birthplace of the Olympics. Part of the program is the display of Olympic torches going back to 1896,” said Thomas Drakopoulos, curator of the Cultural Program at Paniyiri.

Part of the program is the display of Olympic torches going back to 1896. This collection is unique and has been kindly made available to us by Robert Innes. There will be a parade of some of the torches which will be part of the Official Opening of the festival on Sunday.”

The Olympic torch and flame represent continuity and connection to the ancient Greek Olympics where sacred fire was kept burning throughout  on the altar of the sanctuary of Hestia – the goddess of home and hearth. The modern Olympic flame is lit before every games in a ceremony at the site of Olympia in front of the ruins of the temple of Hera.

The story of how Robert Innes began collecting Olympic torches is not an easy one to tell. In 2007 his 14-year-old daughter Morgan was killed in a ferry accident on Sydney Harbour. 

In the wake of this catastrophic event Innes committed himself to making the Harbour safer. “Sydney Ferries tried to duck any responsibility for that accident. But I wasn’t out to get anybody, I just wanted everyone to be better,” he said. “There were processes on Sydney Harbour that needed to be changed to make everyone safer. And I’ve done that.”

Innes collected all money his family was offered for interviews about the incident and placed it into an account he used to establish the Morgan Innes Foundation, which offered scholarships in his daughter’s name for aspiring professional figure skaters. 

“It started with Morgan. I don’t make a big deal of celebrating Morgan when I do torch presentations, but Morgan was at this cusp in her life. She was a very, very good skater, I mean, Queensland champion, good skater. But she was at the cusp of being an elite skater. She had that ability and she had my drive.”

According to her father, Morgan had dreams of one day being an Olympic skater. 

“Her friend, Chelsea – Chelsea Lee, who was a New South Wales champion at the same time as Morgan – Chelsea went to the Vancouver Olympics representing Australia. Chelsea and Morgan were really good friends. There would have been one spot and if Chelsea got it, Morgan would have been okay with that. And if Morgan got it, Chelsea would have been okay with that. But we didn’t have that opportunity.”

In 2008, in recognition of his work and as tribute to his daughter,  Innes was selected as a torchbearer for the Beijing Olympic torch relay. “I was one of 80 torchbearers for Australia, which is pretty cool. I got back from Canberra with my torch,” he remembered – the first in his collection. 

Innes running in the 2008 Beijing torch relay (Image: supplied).

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“And we were invited to Morgan’s friend’s 15th birthday party. So you can imagine how hard that was. But we went along and Monica, Morgan’s friend, was there.

“And I said, does anyone want to see the Olympic torch? So I took the torch in, everyone’s holding it, photographs, it’s very topical. And Elizabeth, Monica’s mum, turned to me and said, ‘Did you know that my father was in three torch relays?’ And I said, ‘No, how did he get in three torch relays?’ And she said, ‘Well, he qualified for the 1956 Olympics as a torch relay participant. And then he got selected as one for Sydney and then one for Athens.’

I said, ‘Has he still got his torches?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve got to go to Camp Hill State School and a couple of other schools next week with the torch. Why don’t we take four torches rather than one?’ So that’s how it all started.” 

The two became a team and George Stephanos, is now according to Innes “a bit of a torch presentation junkie.”

Stephanos will also be attending the Paniyiri festival. “That’s sort of how the Greek thing came in,” said Innes, “because George was celebrated by the Greek community. They actually sent him to Athens to run around Athens with the torch [as part of the 2004 Olympics], which was really remarkable.”

A significant event Innes recalls took place at a parade for returning Olympic athletes in 2008. 

“The athletes actually don’t get to see the torch because they’re in training in the lead up to the Olympics. So even when we got there all the athletes wanted to hold the torch – very fun and very topical,” he said.

“I was standing there and a lady came up and she said, ‘what’s that?’ And George has a 1956 Melbourne torch, because he was there, and he told her, she said, ‘can I hold it?’ And I said, ‘yeah, by all means.’

“She’s standing there and she’s holding this torch and she’s gripping it with both hands. and then she started crying! There’s tears running down her face and I said, ‘You need to give me a bit of an in as to what’s happening with this,’ because they’re supposed to be happy.

And she goes, ‘I’m happy.’ And I said, ‘So what’s happening?’ And she was in her seventies and she had lost to Betty Cuthbert in the lead up to the 1956 Olympics. She was a sprinter. The first and only thing she’d held from the Olympics in 1956 was this torch.

“We only had the four torches at that point in time. But I said to George, what we’re doing is actually important, even though everyone gets something different out of it.”

That was when his collecting began in earnest. 

Is Innes looking forward to the 2032 Brisbane Olympics? Yes, he said. “If they can get off the ground and get going, that would be pretty good.”

“One of the things I’ve told everybody along the way is my goal is in 2032 that somehow I’ll get my son to run in the torch relay. He’s 28 at the moment, so would be 36. it gives my collection some longevity because I’ll be 73 at that stage, George will be 90 something, we’re all tiling off, you know, so it’d be nice to think that what I do with torches and with kids would continue on because I think it’s important and no one else does it. So that’s a goal.”

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