A Guide To The Olympic Torch

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.

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.

How Does The Olympic Torch Get Transported?

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 has been transported in lots of other ways.

Water travel has often featured and the flame first crossed the Channel by boat in 1948. It was also 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 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, by canoe, camel, and Concorde. And if all of that wasn’t enough, it was also transported by use of a flaming arrow when Paralympics archer Antonio Rebollo ignited the gas-filled Olympic cauldron by firing the arrow over it.

How Is The Torch Fuelled?

Of course, the Olympics are almost as much about design as sport. Aand 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. 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.

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 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.

Can The Olympic Flame Go 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 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.

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 e-bay 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.”

2020 Tokyo Olympics

We all know that the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo didn’t actually take place in 2020. Due to the worldwide pandemic, the games were postponed until 2021. However, because of branding and the huge amount of preparation, they will still be called Tokyo 2020.

For athletes who have trained with 2020 in mind, it was a huge blow. For others, an extra year to train was a massive boost for their medal hopes. And usually, as the games approach, you too can get in on the action as most bookmakers have an Olympics betting market.

Generally, it’s things like how many medals a country will win. However, you can also place bets on the number of medals some participants will take home. Those odds will be available closer to the time.