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The Olympic Flame or Olympic Torch is a symbol of the Olympic Games. 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 reintroduced at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdammarker, and it has been part of the modern Olympic Games ever since. 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.


The Olympic Torch today is ignited several months before the opening celebration of the Olympic Games at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympiamarker, Greece. Eleven women, representing the roles of priestesses, 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 secret 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.

Since the first Olympic games celebrated in modern time, the Olympic Torch has become a symbol of the peace between the continents (as well as the Olympians that share this role in our modern celebration).


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 Olympiamarker, Greecemarker. A fire permanently burned on the altar of Hestia in Olympiamarker, Greecemarker. 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

Olympic flame at Berlin games 1936

The Olympic 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 Stadiummarker in Amsterdam.The modern convention of moving the Olympic Flame via a relay system from Olympia to the Olympic venue began with the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlinmarker, Germanymarker.

The relay, captured in Leni Riefenstahl's film Olympia, 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.

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 Channelmarker and was carried by rowers in Canberramarker as well as by dragon boat in Hong Kongmarker in 2008, and it was first transported by airplane in 1952, when the fire travelled to Helsinkimarker. In 1956, all carriers in the torch relay to Stockholmmarker, 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 Athensmarker, this signal was transmitted by satellite to Canadamarker, 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 Reefmarker. Other unique means of transportation include a Native American canoe, a camel, and the Concorde. 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 Athensmarker 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 from the stage in the stadium. Two years later, the Olympic fire was brought into the stadium of Lillehammermarker by a ski jumper. In Beijing 2008, Li Ning 'ran' on air around the Bird's Nest and lit the flame.


Paavo Nurmi lights the Olympic fire in Helsinki in 1952.

Over the years, it has become a tradition to let famous athletes or former athletes be the last runner in the relay. The first well-known athlete to light the fire 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 Frenchmarker football star Michel Platini (1992), heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (1996) and Australian aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman (2000).

On other occasions, the people who lit the fire in the stadium are not famous, but nevertheless symbolise Olympic ideals. Japanesemarker runner Yoshinori Sakai was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day the nuclear weapon Little Boymarker destroyed that city. He symbolised the rebirth of Japan after the Second World War when he opened the 1964 Tokyo Games. At the 1976 Games in Montrealmarker, two teenagers — one from the French-speaking part of the country, one from the English-speaking part — symbolised the unity of Canadamarker.


The Olympic Flame at the Opening Ceremony, Athens 2004 Games
The cauldron and the pedestal it sits on 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 ostensibly to light it. Rebollo had in fact been ordered to miss by organisers lest the arrow fall in the stadium.
  • 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 At the 1996 Summer Paralympics, the scroll was lit by a paraplegic climber 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 needle which bowed down to accept the flame from windsurfer Nikolaos Kaklamanakis.
  • 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-meter high Olympic Cauldron, the highest in the history of the Winter Olympic Games.
  • 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. The cauldron itself was built in the early summer of 2008. The structure was built laid down on the roof of the stadium, and covered with an inflatable, air conditioned, hanger-like structure where it was painted and decorated. A day before the Opening Ceremony, the inflatable structure was taken away, and the cauldron was covered with a tarp until the very beginning of the Ceremony. On the night of August 8, during the Opening Ceremony, the cauldron mechanically slid to the edge of the stadium roof’s and tilted up into its final position. This took place during the Parade of Nations at around 10:08 PM local time. As all the attention was on the stadium’s floor and away from the darkened area of the stadium's roof, Ceremony organizers hoped to perform the operation in as much secrecy as possible. However, some athletes and spectators reported seeing the cauldron tilt upwards and rumors about the how the cauldron would be lighted began to spread among those in the stadium. Additionally, some broadcasters also noticed the newly-positioned cauldron and pointed it out to their television audiences.


A runner bearing the 2008 Olympic Torch as it passes through London
The torch ceremony is seen by some as controversial. During one incident in the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbournemarker, nine Australian students, most notably Barry Larkin, staged a hoax during the relay when the torch entered Sydneymarker. The students wanted to protest what they saw as "too much reverence" for the flame, considering its Nazi origins. Larkin pretended to be an Olympic athlete, carrying a fake torch made out of a burning pair of underpants and a plum pudding can on the end of a chair leg. He presented it to the mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills, and escaped before anyone realized he was an imposter.

The torch has raised disputes about the sovereignty of the regions through which it passes. The 2008 Beijing Games planned for the torch to pass through the island of Taiwan before going to Hong Kong, Macau, and then mainland China. Taiwan rejected this on the basis that it wished the flame to enter the country by a 'third-party country' and leave by a 'fourth-party country' so the torch would not downgrade Taiwan's sovereignty. Negotiations were not successful by the deadline set by the International Olympic Committee.

Plans to carry the 2008 torch to the top of Mount Everest were also met with opposition by Tibetan government-in-exile and its followers. Political protest followed the 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay in other parts of the world as well. In April, 2008, serious unrest occurred during protests of Chinamarker's treatment of Tibet when the Olympic Torch traveled through many western cities on its world tour preceding the Beijing Olympics.

Re-igniting the Flame

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 "versions" 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 Montrealmarker, Canadamarker. After a rainstorm that 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.

At the 2004 Summer Olympics, when the Olympic flame came to the Panathinaiko Stadiummarker 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 back up 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 police) so that it could be transported in a bus amid protests while it was being paraded through Paris. This eventually led to the cancellation of the relay's last leg in the city. The flame itself, however, remained preserved in the back-up lantern used to keep it overnight and on airplanes, and the torch is 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 back up flames are taken along the ceremonial journey in case the flame is extinguished.

Torch Relays

See also


  • Volker Kluge. 1997-2004. Olympische Sommerspiele – Die Chronik. Five volumes. Sportverlag except Vol. 5 (Südwest-Verlag). ISBN 3-328-00715-6; ISBN 3-328-00740-7; ISBN 3-328-00741-5; ISBN 3-328-00830-6; ISBN 3-517-06732-6.


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