The Olympic flame is a symbol of the Olympic Games.1 Commemorating the theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus by Prometheus, its origins lie in ancient Greece, where a fire was kept burning throughout the celebration of the ancient Olympics. The fire was introduced at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, and it has been part of the modern Olympic Games ever since. In contrast to the Olympic flame proper, the torch relay of modern times, which transports the flame from Greece to the various designated sites of the games, had no ancient precedent and was introduced by Carl Diem at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.2
The Olympic Torch today is ignited several months before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. Eleven women, representing the Vestal Virgins,notes 1 perform a celebration at the Temple of Hera in which the torch is kindled by the light of the Sun, its rays concentrated by a parabolic mirror. The torch briefly travels around Greece via short relay, and then starts its transfer to the host city after a ceremony in the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens.3
The Olympic Torch Relay ends on the day of the opening ceremony in the central stadium of the Games. The final carrier is often kept unannounced until the last moment, and is usually a sports celebrity of the host country. The final bearer of the torch runs towards the cauldron, often placed at the top of a grand staircase, and then uses the torch to start the flame in the arena. It is considered to be a great honor to be asked to light the Olympic flame. After being lit, the flame continues to burn throughout the Games, until the day of the closing ceremony and celebration, when it is finally put out.
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In the time of the original games within the boundaries of Olympia, the altar of the sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hera maintained a continuous flame.45 For the ancient Greeks, fire had divine connotations—it was thought to have been stolen from the gods by Prometheus. Therefore, fire was also present at many of the sanctuaries in Olympia, Greece. During the Olympic Games, which honoured Zeus, additional fires were lit at his temple and that of his wife, Hera. The modern Olympic flame is ignited at the site where the temple of Hera used to stand.
The tradition was reintroduced during the 1928 Games. An employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam lit the first Olympic flame in the Marathon Tower of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.6 The modern convention of moving the Olympic flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue began in 1936 in Germany. Carl Diem devised the idea of the torch relay for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin that was organized by the Nazis under the guidance of Joseph Goebbels. The Krupp armaments company produced the torches in wood and metal, inspired by an olive leaf. The Olympic flame was lit by a concave mirror in Olympia, Greece and transported over 3,187 kilometres by 3,331 runners in twelve days and eleven nights from Greece to Berlin. Leni Riefenstahl later staged the torch relay for the 1938 film Olympia. Contingent on the audience, some may have comprehended the film as part of the Nazi propaganda machine's attempt to add myth and mystique to Adolf Hitler's regime. Hitler saw the link with the ancient Games as the perfect way to illustrate his belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich.7 There were minor protests in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia on the way, which were suppressed by the local security forces.
Although most of the time the torch with the Olympic flame is still carried by runners, it has been transported in many different ways. The fire travelled by boat in 1948 and 2012 to cross the English Channel and was carried by rowers in Canberra as well as by dragon boat in Hong Kong8 in 2008, and it was first transported by airplane in 1952, when the fire travelled to Helsinki. In 1956, all carriers in the torch relay to Stockholm, where the equestrian events were held instead of in Melbourne, travelled on horseback. Remarkable means of transportation were used in 1976, when the flame was transformed to a radio signal. From Athens, this signal was transmitted by satellite to Canada,9 where it was received and used to trigger a laser beam to re-light the flame. This distinctive 1976 torch was manufactured by John L. Saksun's The Queensway Machine Products Ltd. In 2000, the torch was carried under the water by divers near the Great Barrier Reef. Other unique means of transportation include a Native American canoe, a camel, and Concorde.10 In 2004, the first global torch relay was undertaken, a journey that lasted 78 days. The Olympic flame covered a distance of more than 78,000 km in the hands of some 11,300 torchbearers, travelling to Africa and South America for the first time, visiting all previous Olympic cities and finally returning to Athens for the 2004 Summer Olympics.
The climactic transfer of the flame from the torches to the cauldron at the host stadium concludes the relay and marks the symbolic commencement of the Games. Perhaps one of the most spectacular of these ceremonies took place at the 1992 Barcelona Games, when Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo ignited the cauldron by shooting a burning arrow over it, which ignited gas rising from the cauldron.11 Two years later, the Olympic fire was brought into the stadium of Lillehammer by a ski jumper. In Beijing 2008, Li Ning "ran" on air around the Bird's Nest and lit the flame. In Vancouver 2010, four athletes—Catriona LeMay Doan, Wayne Gretzky, Steve Nash and Nancy Greene—were given the honour of lighting the flame simultaneously (indoors) before Wayne Gretzky transferred the flame to an outdoor cauldron at Vancouver's waterfront. Two years later, at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, seven young athletes-Callum Airlie, Jordan Duckitt, Desiree Henry, Katie Kirk, Cameron MacRitchie, Aidan Reynolds and Adelle Tracey-were given the honour of lighting the flame on one of the 204 copper petals before they converged to form the cauldron for the Games.
Over the years, it has become a tradition to let famous athletes, former athletes and/or athletes with significant achievements and milestones be the last runner in the Olympic torch relay and have the honour of lighting the Olympic Cauldron. The first well-known athlete to light the cauldron in the stadium was ninefold Olympic Champion Paavo Nurmi, who excited the home crowd in Helsinki in 1952. Other famous last bearers of the torch include heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (1996), Australian aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman (2000), and ice hockey player Wayne Gretzky (2010).
On other occasions, the people who lit the cauldron in the stadium are not famous, but nevertheless symbolize Olympic ideals. Japanese runner Yoshinori Sakai was born in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the day the nuclear weapon Little Boy destroyed that city. He symbolized the rebirth of Japan after the Second World War when he opened the 1964 Tokyo Games. At the 1976 Games in Montreal, two teenagers — one from the French-speaking part of the country, one from the English-speaking part — symbolized the unity of Canada. For the 2012 Games in London, seven aspiring young athletes — each nominated by a British Olympic hero — had the honour of lighting the cauldron.
The Olympic torch travels routes that symbolise human achievement. As part of the 1976 relay the flame was transmitted from Greece to the New World via satellite. Heat sensors in Greece detected the flame, the signal was sent to Ottawa via satellite and there a laser beam lit the torch.12 The torch, but not the flame, was taken into space by astronauts in 1996, 2000 and 2013.13
The 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay spanned all six inhabited continents before proceeding through China, but was met with protests in London, Paris, and San Francisco. As a result, in 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that future torch relays could be held only within the country hosting the Olympics after the initial Greek leg. Although this rule takes effect with the 2014 Winter Olympics, the organizers of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Olympics in London chose to hold their torch relays only in their respective hosting countries of Canada and the United Kingdom14 (except for brief stops in the United States and Ireland, respectively). The London 2012 torch travelled 8000 miles across the UK.
The design of the torch used in the relay to the Games changes for each Games. They may be designed to represent a classical ideal, or to represent some local aspect of those particular Games.151617 Some, such as Albertville in 1992 and Turin in 2006 have been designed by famous industrial designers. These design-led torches have been less popular than the more classical designs, the Turin torch in particular was criticised for being simply too heavy for the runners. The torch for the 1948 London Olympics was designed by architect Ralph Lavers.18 They were cast in Hiduminium aluminium alloy19 with a length of 47 cm and a weight of 960 g. This classical design of a long handle capped by a cylindrical bowl re-appeared in many later torch designs. The torch used for the final entry to the stadium and the lighting of the cauldron was of a different design, also a feature that would re-appear in later years. This torch did not require the long distance duration or weather resistance of the other torches, but did need a spectacular flame for the opening ceremony. At the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the magnesium/aluminium fuel used for the final torch was certainly spectacular, but also injured its holder.20 Runners were also burned by the solid-fueled torch for the 1968 Mexico Games. The fuel used for the torch has varied. Early torches used solid or liquid fuels, including olive oil.21
For a particularly bright display, pyrotechnic compounds and even burning metals have been used. Since the Munich Games of 1972, most torches have instead used a liquefied gas such as propylene or a propane/butane mixture. These are easily stored, easily controlled and give a brightly luminous flame. The number of torches made has varied from, for example, 22 for Helsinki in 1952, 6,200 for the 1980 Moscow Games15 and 8,000 for the London 2012 Games. In transit, the flame sometimes travels by air. A version of the miner's safety lamp is used, kept alight in the air. These lamps are also used during the relay, as a back-up in case the primary torch goes out. This has happened before several Games, but the torch is simply re-lit and carries on. The torch has been carried across water. The 1968 Grenoble Winter Games was carried across the port of Marseilles by a diver holding it aloft above the water.15
In 2000, an underwater flare was used by a diver across the Great Barrier Reef en route to the Sydney Games.20 In 2012 it was carried by boat across Bristol harbour in the UK and on the front of a London Underground train to Wimbledon. The latest torch was designed by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby for the 2012 London Games. Despite a deeply cynical response to the logo and mascots of the London Games, this torch design appears to have been well accepted in the UK and internationally.22
There have been protests against the Olympic flame relay. In the 1956 Melbourne Games in Australia, local veterinary student Barry Larkin protested against the relay when he tricked onlookers by carrying a fake flame, consisting of a pair of underpants set on fire in a plum pudding can, attached to a chair leg. He successfully managed to hand over the fake flame to the Mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills and escape without being noticed.232425 In 2008 there were various attempts to stop the Olympic flame as a protest against China's human rights record. In London, a "ring of steel" was formed around the flame to protect it, but one protester managed to grab hold of the torch while it was being held by television presenter Konnie Huq.26
It is not uncommon for the Olympic flame to be accidentally or deliberately extinguished during the course of the relay, and on at least one occasion the cauldron itself has gone out during the Games. To guard against this eventuality, multiple copies of the flame are transported with the relay or maintained in backup locations. When a torch goes out, it is re-lit (or another torch is lit) from one of the backup sources. Thus, the fires contained in the torches and Olympic cauldrons all trace a common lineage back to the same Olympia lighting ceremony. One of the more memorable extinguishings occurred at the 1976 Summer Olympics held in Montreal, Canada. After a rainstorm doused the Olympic flame a few days after the games had opened, an official re-lit the flame using his cigarette lighter. Organizers quickly doused it again and relit it using a backup of the original flame.9
At the 2004 Summer Olympics, when the Olympic flame came to the Panathinaiko Stadium to start the global torch relay, the night was very windy and the torch, lit by the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, blew out due to the wind, but was re-lit from the backup flame taken from the original ceremonial flame at Olympia. In 2008 the Olympic torch was extinguished at least two times by Chinese officials (five times according to French police27) so that it could be transported in a bus amid protests while it was being paraded through Paris.2829 This eventually led to the cancellation of the relay's last leg in the city.30 The flame itself, however, remained preserved in the back-up lantern used to keep it overnight and on airplanes, and the torch was relit using this. The currently designed torch has a safeguard built into it. There are two flames inside the torch. There is a highly visible (yellow) portion which burns cooler and is more prone to extinguish in wind and rain, but there is also a smaller hotter (blue) flame akin to a pilot light hidden inside the torch which is protected from wind and rain and is capable of relighting the cooler more visible portion if it is extinguished. The fuel inside the torch lasts approximately 15 minutes before the flame is exhausted and needs to be relit. Several backup flames are taken along the ceremonial journey in case the flame is extinguished.31
In October 2013 in Russia, the Olympic flame was blown out at the Kremlin and was reignited from a security officer's lighter instead of the back up flame.32
The cauldron and the pedestal are always the subject of unique and often dramatic design. These also tie in with how the cauldron is lit during the Opening Ceremony.
- In Los Angeles in 1984, Rafer Johnson lit a wick of sorts at the top of the archway after having climbed a big flight of steps. The flame flared up a pipe, through the Olympic Rings and on up the side of the tower to ignite the cauldron.
- In Barcelona in 1992, Antonio Rebollo, an archer, shot a flaming arrow over the cauldron to light it. Though Rebollo intentionally overshot the cauldron,33 his arrow still lit it by igniting the gas rising from the cauldron. This at least has always been the official version.11 Unofficial videos seem to indicate that the flame was lit from below.3435 Twenty years after the Barcelona Games one of those involved said that the flame was "switched on" ("Se encendió con un botón", in Spanish).36
- In Atlanta in 1996, the cauldron was an artistic scroll decorated in red and gold. It was lit by boxing legend Muhammad Ali, using a mechanical, self-propelling fuse ball that transported the flame up a wire from the stadium to its cauldron.37 At the 1996 Summer Paralympics, the scroll was lit by paraplegic climber Mark Wellman, hoisting himself up a rope to the cauldron.
- For the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Cathy Freeman walked across a circular pool of water and ignited the cauldron through the water, surrounding herself within a ring of fire. The planned spectacular climax to the ceremony was delayed by the technical glitch of a computer switch which malfunctioned, causing the sequence to shut down by giving a false reading. This meant that the Olympic flame was suspended in mid-air for about four minutes, rather than immediately rising up a water-covered ramp to the top of the stadium. When it was discovered what the problem was, the program was overridden and the cauldron continued up the ramp, where it finally rested on a tall silver pedestal.
- For the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, United States, the cauldron was lit by the members of the winning 1980 US hockey team. After being skated around the centre ice rink there in the stadium, the flame was carried up a staircase to the team members, who then lit a wick of sorts at the bottom of the cauldron tower which set off a line of flames that travelled up inside the tower until it reached the cauldron at the top which ignited. This cauldron was the first to use glass and incorporated running water to prevent the glass from heating and to keep it clean.
- For the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, the cauldron was in the shape of a giant olive leaf which bowed down to accept the flame from windsurfer Nikolaos Kaklamanakis.38
- In the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Stefania Belmondo placed the flame on an arched lighting apparatus, which initiated a series of fireworks before lighting the top of the 57 metres (187 ft) high Olympic cauldron, the highest in the history of the Winter Olympic Games.39
- In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the cauldron resembled the end of a scroll that lifted out from the stadium rim and spiralled upwards. It was lit by Li Ning, a Chinese gymnast who was raised to the rim of the stadium by wires. He ran around the rim of the stadium while suspended and as he ran, an unrolling scroll was projected showing film clips of the flame's journey around the world. As he approached the cauldron, he lit an enormous wick, which then transferred the flame to the cauldron. The flame then spiralled up the structure of the cauldron before lighting it at the top.40
- In the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, athletes Catriona Le May Doan, Steve Nash, Nancy Greene and Wayne Gretzky were to simultaneously light the base of poles, which would then carry the flames upwards to the cauldron. However, only three out of four poles came out of the ground due to mechanical problems, resulting in inadvertently excluding Le May Doan from lighting it with the other three athletes. Because the site of the ceremonies - BC Place - was a domed stadium, Gretzky was sent via the back of a pick-up truck to a secondary site — the Vancouver Convention Centre which served at the International Broadcast Centre for these Olympics — to light a larger cauldron of a similar design located outdoors, as Olympic rules state that the flame must be in public view for the entirety of the Olympics. In the closing ceremonies, Le May Doan took part in a joke about the mechanical glitch, and she was able to light the fully raised fourth pole and have the indoor cauldron relit.
- The 2012 Summer Olympics flame in London was carried by Sir Steve Redgrave to a group of young British athletes. The group of seven, nominated by British Olympic champions, each lit a single tiny flame on the ground, igniting 204 petals, one for each competing nation or territory during the Parade of Nations.41 Mounted on long, hinged arms, the petals were raised and converged to form the Olympic cauldron. The cauldron that traditionally flames continuously from the opening until the closing ceremony was temporarily extinguished (the flame itself was transferred to a lantern)42 prior to the athletics events while the cauldron was moved to the southern side of the stadium. It was relit by Austin Playfoot, a torchbearer from the 1948 Olympics.43 In contrast to the cauldrons in Vancouver, the cauldron was not visible to the public outside the stadium. Instead, monitors had been placed throughout the Olympic Park showing the public live footage of the flame.
- For the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the cauldron was situated directly outside Fisht Olympic Stadium, the ceremonial venue for the Games. After the torch's lap around the stadium, hockey great Vladislav Tretiak and decorated figure skater Irina Rodnina carried the torch outside the stadium to light a larger version of the "celebration cauldron" used in the main torch relay at the center of the Olympic Park. An impressive line of gas jets carried the flame from the celebration cauldron up the main cauldron tower, eventually lighting it at the top.
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- Eternal flame
- Flame of Hope (Special Olympics)
- International Olympic Committee
- Olympic symbols
- Olympic Oath
- Queen's Baton Relay, an analogous relay associated with the Commonwealth Games
- Pan American Torch, a torch relay associated with the Pan American Games
- Asian Games Torch, a torch relay associated with the Asian Games
- The Olympic flame has been used as a symbol and main motif numerous times in different commemorative coins. A recent sample was the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Olympic Games commemorative coin, minted in 2002. In the obverse, the Olympic flame above the Earth can be seen. Note that Finland is the only country highlighted, as the host of the 1952 games.
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- Official site of the Olympic Movement - Images and information on every game since 1896
- IOC brochure on the history of Olympic flame (1 MB PDF)
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