The Olympic torch is the most famous flame in the world. It was 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. Despite that, 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.
The tradition as we know it today was actually introduced by the Nazis for the infamous Berlin Games of 1936. It’s a strange coincidence, considering that the torch symbolises unity and peace among nations worldwide.
Where Does the Olympic Torch Start?
The Olympic Torch Relay begins in Olympia, Greece, at the Temple of Hera, where the flame is lit using a parabolic mirror that concentrates the sun’s rays. This part of the ritual has remained unchanged since ancient times and signifies the start of every Olympic Games.
From there, it is traditionally transported along a route by runners (known as torchbearers) chosen to represent the Olympic ideals of sportsmanship, athleticism and unity. The torchbearers usually comprise athletes, celebrities, statespeople and other distinguished community members.
The flame is then brought into a special cauldron during an Opening Ceremony and remains lit until the end of the Games. Following its conclusion, it is extinguished in a Closing Ceremony.
Paris 2024 Olympic Torch Relay
For the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympic Games, the traditional torch relay has been scheduled to occur over a duration of three months. However, the preparations for this event, which includes the selection of participants, will commence much earlier.
Starting in September 2023, a process will be undertaken to choose the individuals involved, with a significant focus on figures from the world of sports. To ensure broad coverage across diverse communities in France, the torch relay will traverse numerous regions, with a special focus on densely populated areas and including at least one overseas territory.
How Does The Olympic Torch Relay Work?
The relay 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 has been transported in lots of other ways.
Water travel has often been featured, and the flame first crossed the Channel by boat in 1948. It was carried by a rowing boat in Canberra and a 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 recent years technology has played a part in keeping the flame alive. In 1976, the flame was transformed into a radio signal and transmitted from Athens by a satellite which triggered a laser beam and relit the flame in Canada.
It has also been carried underwater by divers, canoes, camels, and Concorde.
What Fuels The Olympic Torch?
Of course, the Olympics are almost as much about design as sports. 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 that is easily controlled and creates a brightly luminous flame.
At some Olympics prior to this, pyrotechnic compounds and even burning metals were occasionally used disastrously. At the ’56 Melbourne Olympics, the fuel of magnesium and aluminium was spectacular but injured its holder. Plus, 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. That rose steeply to 6,200 for the 1980 Moscow Games. And for the London 2012 Olympics, a staggering 8,000 torches were carried.
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What Happens if the Olympic Torch Goes Out?
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. 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 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.
Politics And The Flame
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 hasn’t escaped political attention.
Protests have been against the Olympic flame relay due to its origins with the Nazis. Barry Larkin protested in the 1956 Melbourne Games by tricking onlookers into believing he was a torch carrier. His fake torch consisted 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 escaping 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.
What Happens To The Relay Torches?
Torches are usually kept by the bearers as souvenirs. A torch from the 1948 London Olympics sold in 2012 for £5,400 at auction after being found in a box of bric-a-brac.
The torches for the 2012 London Games were designed by Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby. Many were then auctioned off on eBay amidst a barrage of controversy. The torches, which cost £495, could be bought by bearers for a discounted price of £215 and were intended as a nostalgic keep-sake for runners.
Each of the 8,000 bearers carried their torches around 300m, reaching 1,019 cities, towns and villages and within 10 miles of 95% of the population.
Many of the runners had been given their torches free of charge by sponsoring companies, but some showed up for sale online within hours of them completing their stint. This created outrage and criticism. Bids of well over £100,000 had been reported, with one torch selling for an incredible £153,300.
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. The values it represents still burn within it.
Pierre de Coubertin was the founder of the International Olympic Committee. He 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.”
Olympic Cauldron Torch Bearers Who Lit the Flame
Below is a compilation of distinguished individuals who have had the privilege of igniting the Olympic cauldron at each summer Olympic Games since the historic event in London 1948. This honour is customarily conferred upon an illustrious athlete representing the host nation.
- Tokyo 2020 (held in 2021 due to COVID-19 pandemic): Naomi Osaka, a professional tennis player and Grand Slam champion.
- Rio 2016: Vanderlei de Lima, a Brazilian former marathon runner, who won bronze at the 2004 Games.
- London 2012: Seven young athletes – Callum Airlie, Jordan Duckitt, Desiree Henry, Katie Kirk, Cameron MacRitchie, Aidan Reynolds, and Adelle Tracey, selected by British Olympic champions. These athletes lit copper petals that converged to form one big flame.
- Beijing 2008: Li Ning, a gymnast and six-time Olympic medalist, who was hoisted up to the roof of the stadium to “run” around the rim before lighting the cauldron.
- Athens 2004: Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, a Greek windsurfer and Olympic gold medalist.
- Sydney 2000: Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal Australian sprinter and future gold medalist in Sydney.
- Atlanta 1996: Muhammad Ali, the legendary boxer and gold medalist at Rome 1960, who was suffering from Parkinson’s at the time.
- Barcelona 1992: Antonio Rebollo, a Paralympic archer, who shot a flaming arrow to light the cauldron.
- Seoul 1988: Chung Sun-Man, Kim Won-Tak, and Sohn Mi-Chung, representing Korea’s youth.
- Los Angeles 1984: Rafer Johnson, decathlete and gold medalist at Rome 1960.
- Moscow 1980: Sergey Belov, a basketball player and gold medalist.
- Montreal 1976: Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, representing the youth of Canada.
- Munich 1972: Günther Zahn, a promising young West German athlete.
- Mexico City 1968: Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo, a Mexican sprinter and hurdler, and the first woman to light the Olympic cauldron.
- Tokyo 1964: Yoshinori Sakai, who was born on the day Hiroshima was bombed, symbolizing Japan’s recovery from World War II.
- Rome 1960: Giancarlo Peris, an Italian athlete.
- Melbourne 1956: Ron Clarke, a promising young Australian athlete who later became one of the world’s leading middle-distance runners.
- Helsinki 1952: Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen, both legendary Finnish long-distance runners.
- London 1948: John Mark, a young British athlete.
Please note that there is a great deal of symbolism and national pride associated with the selection of the final torchbearer. It is often used as an opportunity to highlight young athletes, commemorate important national events or figures, and promote the Olympic ideals of peace, unity, and friendship.