The Olympic torch, the most famous flame in the world, kept burning throughout the celebration of the ancient Olympics and reintroduced in modern times at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam.
Of course in ancient times there was no need to transport the flame as the games were always held at Olympia in Greece where the flame was never allowed to die. It wasn’t until 1936 that the modern convention of moving the Olympic Flame via a relay from Greece to the Olympic venue began. This tradition that we know so well today, was introduced by the Nazi’s for the infamous Munich games as part of the Joseph Goebbel’s propaganda machine’s attempt to add myth and mystique to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. Hitler himself believed that linking the Reich to the ancient Games was vital in convincing the rest of the world that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of his regime.
Transportation of the flame globally has led to some interesting and imaginative methods of ensuring the flame does not go out as it travels. Most of the time the Olympic Flame is carried by runners, but it’s been transported in lots or other ways. Water travel has often featured: the flame first crossed the Channel by boat in 1948, was carried by rowing boat in Canberra, and by dragon boat in Hong Kong in 2008. The flame was first moved by plane to Helsinki in 1952 and by horse to Stockholm in 1956. In more recent years technology has played a part in keeping the flame alive. In 1976, the flame was transformed to a radio signal and transmitted from Athens by a satellite which triggered a laser beam and relit the flame in Canada. Its been carried underwater by divers, by canoe, camel, and Concorde, its even be transported by use of a flaming arrow when Paralympics archer Antonio Rebollo ignited the gas filled Olympic cauldron by firing the arrow over it.
Of course the Olympics are almost as much about design as sport, and whilst not always meeting with public approval – as in the case of the 2012 Olympic logo – the design of the torch is no exception. The design of the torches used in the relay is different and changes for each Olympic Games. From Montreal’s beer can on a red stick to Beijing 2008’s steel club, being asked to design the Olympic torch is the jewel in the crown for any designer.
The fuel used for the torch also varies. Early torches used solid or liquid fuels, including olive oil. But since the Munich Games of 1972 most torches have used a liquefied gas which is easily stored, easily controlled and creates a brightly luminous flame. At some Olympics prior to this pyrotechnic compounds and even burning metals were occasionally used to disastrous effect. At the Melbourne Olympics of 1956, the magnesium and aluminium mixed as fuel for the final torch was indeed spectacular, but also managed to injure its holder; and a number of runners were burned by the solid-fuelled torch used in the 1968 Mexico Games.
The number of torches used in each relay also varies considerably, for example, only 22 torches were used in the Helsinki Games in 1952, 6,200 for the 1980 Moscow Games and for the London 2012 a staggering 8,000 torches will be carried.
Politics is never very far away from the Games, from the Nazi rally style ceremony of Hitler’s Munich to the terrorist attacks some 36 years later, even the Olympic torch itself hasn’t escaped political attention. There have been protests against the Olympic flame relay due to its origins with the Nazis. In the 1956 Melbourne Games, Barry Larkin protested by tricking onlookers into believing he was a torch carrier. His fake torch consisted of a pair of flaming underpants inside a plum pudding can, attached to a chair leg. He even managed to hand over the fake flame to the Mayor of Sydney, before making his escape to tumultuous applause from the on-looking crowd. In 2008 there were a number of attempts to stop the Olympic Flame in protest against China’s human rights record. In London, a “ring of steel” was formed by Chinese guardians to protect it, but one protester, Ian Harold Brown, managed to grab the torch while it was being held by television presenter Konnie Huq.
Sometimes the flame goes out, and it isn’t unknown for a flagging torchbearer to seek help from the crowd. It’s rumoured that in the Mexico relay the torch was relit with the disposable lighter of a nearby smoker. A gust of wind blew out the flame of the Olympic torch almost before it began its journey to the London 2012 Games, and even when it was safely on UK soil it fizzled away as para-badminton star David Follett’s carried it attached to the side of his wheelchair. It wasn’t a complete disaster though: the torch was re-lit using a backup flame that is transported around with the torchbearers. A spokesperson for the London 2012 organising committee blamed a malfunction within the burner and said it was not uncommon for flames to be extinguished.
Torches are usually kept by the bearers as souvenirs, but a torch from the 1948 London Olympics sold a couple of years ago for £5,400 at action after being found in a box of bric-a-brac. The torches for the 2012 London Games, designed by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, are already being auctioned off on e-bay amidst a barrage of controversy. The torches, which cost £495 and can be bought by bearers for a discounted price of £215, were intended as a nostalgic keep-sake for runners. Each of the 8,000 bearers will carry their torch around 300m, reaching 1,019 cities, towns and villages and within 10 miles of 95% of the population. Many of the runners have been given their torches free of charge by sponsoring companies, but some have shown up for sale online within hours of them completing their stint, a decision that has created outrage and criticism. Bids of well over £100,000 have been reported with one torch selling for an incredible £153,300. With so many torches potentially available for sale it will be interesting to see if prices hold.
So the tradition of the torch, introduced amidst controversy, continues to have its controversial side. Despite this it stands for the spirit of the games and the long sporting history and values it represents still burn within it. As Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the International Olympic Committee, once said: “May joy and good fellowship reign, and in this manner, may the Olympic Torch pursue its way through ages, increasing friendly understanding among nations, for the good of a humanity always more enthusiastic, more courageous and more pure.”