Olympic Flame

Olympic Flame
The torch relay of the 2002 Winter Olympics passes through Cincinnati, Ohio

The Olympic Flame or Olympic Torch 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[citation needed]. The fire was reintroduced at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, and it has been part of the modern Olympic Games ever since. According to legend, the torch's flame has been kept burning ever since the first Olympics.[dubious ]

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 controversial 1936 Berlin Olympics.[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 ceremony in which the torch is kindled by the light of the Sun, its rays concentrated by a parabolic mirror.

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 stadium. It is considered a great honor to be asked to light the Olympic Flame. After being lit, the flame continues to burn throughout the Olympics, and is extinguished on the day of the closing ceremony.


Ancient Olympics

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. A fire permanently burned on the altar of Hestia in Olympia, Greece. During the Olympic Games, which honored 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 modern era

The Marathon Tower at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, where the first modern Olympic Flame burnt in 1928
Olympic flame at Berlin games 1936

Flame from the ancient games 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.

The modern convention of moving the Olympic Flame via a relay system from Greece to the Olympic venue began in 1936. 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. 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. The film was 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.[3] 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 to cross the English Channel and was carried by rowers in Canberra as well as by dragon boat in Hong Kong[4] 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,[5] 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 water by divers near the Great Barrier Reef. Other unique means of transportation include a Native American canoe, a camel, and Concorde.[6] 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.[7] 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 honor of lighting the flame simultaneously (indoor) before Wayne Gretzky transferred the flame to an outdoor cauldron at Vancouver's waterfront.


Paavo Nurmi lights the Olympic fire in Helsinki in 1952.
The Olympic Flame at the Opening Ceremony, Athens 2004 Games
An Asian man in red and white athletic shirt and shorts, and wearing sneakers, is suspended by wires in the air while holding a lit torch. In the background, a large crowd in a stadium can be seen, as well as two blurred flags.
Li Ning, a Chinese gymnast, lit the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics after 'flying' around the stadium on wires
The Vancouver olympic flame

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 honor 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 French football star Michel Platini (1992), 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 August 6, 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.


The Olympic torch travels routes that symbolise human achievement. In 1976 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.[8] The torch, but not the flame, was taken into space by astronauts in 1996 and 2000.[9]


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.[10][11][12] 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 being criticised for being simply too heavy for the runners.

The torch for the 1948 London Olympics was designed by architect Ralph Lavers.[13] They were cast in Hiduminium aluminium alloy[14] 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 managed to injure its holder.[15] Runners were also burned by the solid-fueled torch for the 1968 Mexico Games.[10]

The fuel used for the torch has varied. Early torches used solid or liquid fuels, including olive oil.[16] 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 between 6,200 for the 1980 Moscow Games to a mere 22 for Helsinki in 1952.[10]

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 twice 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.[10] In 2000 an underwater flare was used by a diver across the Great Barrier Reef en route to the Sydney Games.[15]

The latest torch is designed by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby (BarberOsgerby) 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.[17]


There have been protests against the Olympic flame relay due to its origins with the Nazis. In the 1956 Melbourne Games, local veterinary student Barry Larkin protested against the relay by tricking 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.[18][19][20]

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, Ian Harold Brown, managed to grab hold of the torch while it was being held by television presenter Konnie Huq.[21]


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,[22] his arrow still lit it by igniting the gas rising from the cauldron.[7]
  • 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 final resting place.[23] 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, USA, 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 an impressive line of flames that traveled 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.[24]
  • 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.[25]
  • 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.[26]
  • In the 2010 Winter Olympics at Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, only three out of four poles came out of the ground. The athletes were to simultaneously light the base of the poles, which would then carry the flame upwards to the cauldron. Because the site of the ceremonies - BC Place - was a domed stadium, Wayne 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 as Olympic rules state that the flame must be in public view for the entirety of the Olympics.

See also



  1. ^ The Roman Vesta is derived from the Greek goddess Hestia. Hestia's rituals at the founding of a new settlement also included the transfer of a continuous flame from the founding city.
  1. ^ Britannica on Olympic Flame
  2. ^ "Hitler's Berlin Games Helped Make Some Emblems Popular". Sports > Olympics (The New York Times). 2004-08-14. http://www.nytimes.com/2004/08/14/sports/olympics/14torch.html?ex=1207972800&en=732b3844bc19c839&ei=5070. Retrieved 2010-03-27. [dead link]
  3. ^ Hines, Nico (2008-04-07). "Who put the Olympic flame out?". London: timesonline.co.uk. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article3699278.ece. Retrieved 2008-04-07. 
  4. ^ "施幸余乘龍舟傳送火炬" (in Chinese). Singtao. 2008-05-02. http://www.singtao.com/breakingnews/20080502a131407.asp. Retrieved 2008-05-02. [dead link]
  5. ^ "Montréal". The Olympic Museum Lausanne. International Olympic Committee. http://www.olympic.org/uk/passion/museum/permanent/summer/montreal_uk.asp. 
  6. ^ "Report" (PDF). 2008. http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_1020.pdf. 
  7. ^ a b Official Report of the 1992 Summer Olympics, Vol. 4, p. 70 (confirming arrow lit the gas above the cauldron) and p. 69 (time-lapse photo of lighting; the arrow passed through the upper reaches of the flame).
  8. ^ Winn, L.: Olympic Design: Torches & Cauldrons. Sports Illustrated, Feb. 17, 2010.
  9. ^ The Olympic Museum: The Olympic flame and torch relay. Lausanne, 2007.
  10. ^ a b c d "Torch Timeline". BBC News online. 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13424048. 
  11. ^ "Passing the Torch: An Evolution of Form". New York Times. 9 February 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2010/02/09/sports/olympics/0209-torches-graphic.html. 
  12. ^ "Pictures of all Olympic Summergames Torches". olympic-museum.de. http://olympic-museum.de/quickview/all_torches.htm. 
  13. ^ "Olympic Torch, London 1948". Metalwork. Victoria and Albert Museum. http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/metalwork/metalwork_stories/olympic_torch/index.html. Retrieved 2007-11-19. 
  14. ^ "1948 Olympics" (PDF). Flight: 90. 22 July 1948. http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1948/1948%20-%201112.html. 
  15. ^ a b "Olympic torch technology". Australian Broadcasting Corporation. 2000. http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/torch/default.htm. "Australian runner, Ron Clarke carried a spectacular, fizzling flame into the Melbourne Olympic Stadium in 1956 only to miss out on the ceremony having his magnesium burns dressed." 
  16. ^ How Olympic Torches Work
  17. ^ "Designing an Olympic 'torch for our time' (2012)". BBC News online. 2011. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-13673497. 
  18. ^ "Olympic Underwear Relay". The Birdman. Archived from the original on 2011-05-18. http://web.archive.org/web/20080413001401/http://www.thebirdman.org/Index/Temp/Temp-OlympicUnderwearRelay-EH.htm. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  19. ^ Stephen Fry (2007). QI Presents: Strictly Come Duncing (DVD). Warner Music Entertainment. 
  20. ^ Turpin, Adrian (2004-08-08). "Olympics Special: The Lost Olympians (Page 1)". Find Articles, originally The Independent on Sunday. Archived from the original on 2011-05-18. http://web.archive.org/web/20080413034334/http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4159/is_20040808/ai_n12758702. Retrieved 2008-04-06. 
  21. ^ Lews, Paul; Kelso, Paul (7 April 2008). "Thousands protest as Olympic flame carried through London". The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/apr/07/olympicgames2008.china2. Retrieved 18 May 2011. 
  22. ^ Mathews, John (15 September 2000). "Ceremonial hall of shame". BBC Sport. http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/olympics2000/926190.stm. 
  23. ^ 1996 Atlanta Opening Ceremonies - Lighting of the Cauldron on YouTube
  24. ^ 2004 picture, BBC News
  25. ^ Olympic Opening Ceremony Torino 2006 - Light of Passion on YouTube
  26. ^ "Builders reveal secrets of giant Olympic cauldron". China.org.cn. 8-13-2008. http://www.china.org.cn/olympics/news/2008-08/13/content_16214170.htm. 

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