The Olympic Torch is being carried through Cardiff, today, passing near my house. The city is entranced, and I have been reflecting on its appeal.

Weekend Word BBC Radio Wales, 25 May 2012

I had no interest in struggling through crowds for a brief glimpse of the Olympic flame in Cardiff. But then my wife said, ‘It’s historic. It might be the only time our son gets to see it in his lifetime.’

Some might complain that the Olympic Games have become a vast commercial event in which amateur values have been forgotten and national competition overwhelms individual achievements. But the growing Olympic fever reminds us that, somehow, the Games retain an aura of specialness that other events can’t match.

The flame encapsulates that. It’s lit at the temple to the goddess Hera on Mt Olympus, which ancient Greeks believed to be the home of their gods. The Olympic sanctuary surrounding the temple was a sacred space where wars were left behind and athletes competed in peace. A fire blazed constantly, showing the gods’ presence

Today’s Olympic flame makes a connection with these origins. It’s message is that something burns at the heart of the Olympic movement: the rekindled classical ideals of honest competition and the pursuit of excellence. The torch relay enacts their transmission from the ancient sources to the new Games, touching us as it passes.

The Olympic flame’s aura of sanctity also shows the continuing power of symbols. They express meanings and values that can’t be captured in concepts, which is why symbols are the idiom of both poetry and religion. When William Blake describes the Tiger ‘burning bright’ we sense its awesome presence, and when WB Yeats tells us that ‘Education is not filling a bucket but lighting a flame’ we understand that real learning happens when something inside us is ignited by another person’s passion.

Fire has been a symbol of the soul, emotion and imagination. Flames flicker like our thoughts and their brevity mirrors our lives, but they also protect us from cold and guard us from darkness. Gaze long at a fire and you feel its magical presence and eerie power.

Compare that with London 2012’s uninspiring logo and the performance involving David Beckham, bowler hats and a double-decker bus that closed the Beijing Olympics. Clearly, we find it hard to come up with evocative modern images; but the flame somehow remains a primal, elemental symbol that still affects us in ways we don’t fully understand.