The Olympic Flame

The Olympic Flame

Fire is a sacred symbol dating back to prehistoric times. In ancient Greece it symbolized the creation of the world, renewal and light. It was also the sacred symbol of Hephaestus, and a gift to the human race from Prometheus, who stole it from Zeus. At the centre of every city-state in ancient Greece there was an altar with an ever-burning fire and in every home the sacred Flame burned, dedicated to Hestia, goddess of the family.

The Torch and Relay were important elements of the cultural festivals surrounding the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece. During the Games, a sacred flame burned continually on the altar of the goddess, Hera. In addition, heralds were summoned to travel throughout Greece to announce the Games, declaring a sacred truce for the duration.

The modern Olympic Games were founded in 1896 when Baron Pierre de Coubertin sought to promote international understanding through sporting competition. He based his Olympics on the Wenlock Olympian Society Annual Games, which had been contested in Much Wenlock (UK) since 1850.

The first edition of de Coubertin’s games, held in Athens in 1896, attracted just 245 competitors, of whom more than 200 were Greek, and only 14 countries were represented.

1894 athens modern olympics

In a prophetic speech at the end of the Stockholm Games, on June 27, 1912, Baron Pierre de Coubertin said: …. “And now… great people have received the Torch… and have thereby undertaken to preserve and… quicken its precious Flame. Lest our youth temporarily… let the Olympic Torch fall from their hands… other young people on the other side of the world are prepared to pick it up again.”

2012 london olympics torch designed by Barber Osgerby

The modern Olympic Games have become as much a global contest among designers and architects as among athletes. Each Olympics is expected to produce a logo, a signature building – and a characteristic torch and cauldron that symbolizes local tradition and national character.

The Olympic torch is the ultimate design object for industrial designers. Along with the medals, it’s one of the two things that last once the games are over. These are the things that go in the museums – but the stadia and other buildings remain for the host city’s public benefit.

The Olympic Flame represents a strong link between the ancient Olympic sites and the modern Olympic cities. The flame symbolizes the purity which embodies the eternal youth of the Olympic philosophy. The universal symbol of the flame would lead all competitors to understand that it is necessary to work towards the lasting unity of mankind.

The Flame was re-introduced at the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, and it has been part of the modern Olympic Games ever since. An employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam lit the first Olympic flame in the Marathon Tower of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.

For the modern Olympic Games the sacred Flame is lit in Olympia by the head priestess, in the same way as in antiquity, and the ritual includes the athletes’ oath.

Eleven women, representing the Vestal Virgins, perform a ceremony in which the torch is kindled by the light of the Sun, its rays concentrated by a parabolic mirror. After a short relay around Greece, the Flame is handed over to the new Host City at another ceremony in the Panathenaiko stadium in Athens.

The Flame is then delivered to the Host Country, where it is transferred from one Torchbearer to another, spreading the message of peace, unity and friendship. It ends its journey as the last Torchbearer lights the cauldron at the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony in the Olympic Stadium, marking the official start of the Games.

The Flame is extinguished on the final day of the Games, at the Closing Ceremony

Constantine Kondyllis – the first runner to carry the torch in Athens for the start of the 1936 Berlin Torch Relay

Olympic Games Torch(s) &  Relay

Torch Relay races started in ancient Greece as religious rituals held at night.

Soon they turned into a team athletic event, initially among adolescents, and further developed to become one of the most popular ancient sports. The enchanting power of fire was a source of inspiration.

The Ancient Greeks held a “lampadedromia” (the Greek word for Torch Relay), where athletes competed by passing on the Flame in a relay race to the finish line.

In ancient Athens the ritual was performed during the Panathenaia fest, held every four years in honour of the goddess Athena. The strength and purity of the sacred Flame was preserved through its transportation by the quickest means; in this case a relay of Torchbearers.

The Torch Relay carried the Flame from the altar of Prometheus to the altar of goddess Athena on the Acropolis. Forty youths from the ten Athenian tribes had to run a distance of 2.5 kilometers in total

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 ( based on ancient greek ceramic images ) at the controversial 1936 Berlin Olympics, which were organized by the Nazis under the guidance of Joseph Goebbels.

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. The itinerary took it through Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany. There were minor protests in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia on the way, which were suppressed by the local security forces.

Leni Riefenstahl later staged the torch relay for the 1938 film Olympia. 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

Krupp Armaments company produced the 1936 berlin olympic relay torches

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 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, where it was received and used to trigger a laser beam to re-light the flame.

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

Other unique means of transportation include a Native American canoe, a camel, and 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 Athens for the 2004 Summer Olympics.

The number of torches made has varied between 6,200 for the 1980 Moscow Games to a mere 22 for Helsinki in 1952.

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.

Olympic torches over the last 70 years have evolved from crude, mace-like fire stick to long fire rod.

For the Albertville Winter Olympics Games a “designer” was historically asked to create the torch – Frenchman Philippe Starck. The idea was to make this a rare and valuable object. Starck responded to the challenge with a design in stainless steel notable for its purity of form and aerodynamic lines.

The Turin 2006 torch was designed by PinniFarinna. it was heavily criticised for being simply too heavy for the runners

Sapporo first won the rights to host the 1940 Winter Olympics, but Japan resigned as the Games’ host after its 1937 invasion of China. The 1940 Games were later cancelled.

All the cities awarded Games that were cancelled due to war have since hosted the Games (Berlin, London, Tokyo, Helsinki, Sapporo and Cortina d’Ampezzo)

The 1948 London Olympic Games were the first to be held after 12 years of interruption due to the Second World War. For that reason, in a Europe that was having difficulty healing its war wounds, the message of peace conveyed by this Relay was particularly welcome.

Furthermore, the route chosen, which passed through Greece, Italy, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg and Belgium, covered regions that had been greatly affected by the conflict, and highlighted the crossing of borders, where celebrations were held.

The torch for the 1948 London Olympics was designed by architect Ralph Lavers. They were cast in Hiduminium aluminium alloy 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.

The fuel used for the torch has varied. Early torches used solid or liquid fuels, including olive oil. For a particularly bright display, pyrotechnic compounds and even burning metals have been used.

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. Runners were also burned by the solid-fueled torch for the 1968 Mexico Games.

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 AMP Sydneycollection of Olympic torches is one of only a few complete collections in the world

1956 Australian Olympic Torch Relay

Barry Larkin, now a veterinary surgeon from Melbourne, planned to interupt the torch relay along with eight other students from St John’s College, believing that the Olympic Flame received too much reverence.

The fake torch was hardly a master forgery, which makes the fact that it was passed off as the real deal all the more humorous. The fake was made using no more than a wooden chair leg that had been painted silver, holding at top a plum pudding can. As for the flame, which proved to be far from a reverent affair, this was created using a pair of underpants, soaked in kerosene.

After a shaky start, Larkin ran with the torch to Sydney Town Hall protected by police who thought that he was the official runner, where he presented the torch to the Mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills.

As the mayor was unprepared, he did not look at the torch and went straight to his speech. While Hills was talking, Larkin walked quietly away, avoiding attention. Hills didn’t realise at all that the torch was fraudulent until someone whispered in his ear and told him it was a fake. Hills looked around for Larkin, but by now Larkin had merged into the crowd and escaped.

In the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the media reported the story of Larkin’s hoax. As a result, the police took measures to prevent the hoax from happening again. This included security guards lining the route. However, this was not popular as some people complained that they could not see the torch. Some hoaxers did try to disrupt the relay; two people attempted to steal the torch and one man tried to put out the torch using a fire extinguisher, but no-one succeeded

London Olympics 2012

The latest torch is that for the 2012 London Games. Despite a deeply cynical response to the graphic design of the London games, particularly its logo and mascots, so far the torch appears to have been accepted by the British.

Ever since the Sydney summer games, the Olympics have tried to lead the way in terms of environmental sustainability. So far all newly-constructed Olympic buildings have met stringent green standards, but the flame remained the same.

The London organizers decided that, as they wish to be remembered as the greenest Olympics ever, the flame will be carbon neutral. Instead of paraffin or other similar high carbon fuels, the London organizers are researched a low-carbon fuel to light and mantain the Olympic flame —– “The Olympic games and Paralympic games have the power to set agendas, and change behaviour, and applying sustainability principles to one of the most potent symbols of the Games will, we hope, help us do just that.” a spokeswoman for London 2012 said.

Original designs for the aluminum torch included an eco-friendly flame with low-carbon emissions, but the designers weren’t able to find a suitable propellant for the flame in time. Instead, it will burn a more traditional gas concoction. This is an embarrassment to the host country, as their promise to make an environment friendly torch has been a failure as the torch will run on a mixture of propane and butane gas.

Responding to a call in the brief to recognise the fact that more than half of the london 2012 torchbearers are expected to be young people aged between 12 and 24, several design features have been implemented to produce what will be one of the lighter olympic torches.

The torch is made from a golden aluminium alloy that is perforated by 8000 circular holes, each representing one of the 8000 torch-bearers that will take part in the 8000 mile olympic relay throughout the UK. It has a height of 800mm and weighs 800g.

Crafted from an aluminium alloy, developed for the aerospace and automotive industry that is lightweight whilst having good tensile strength and excellent heat resistance, the 8,000 circles also reduce the weight of the final design whilst ensuring strength isn’t compromised.

To cut the holes we are using a brand new laser-cutting technology called Fire on the Fly – the fastest in the world. This technology wouldn’t have been possible had the games been a few years ago but it’s essential for ensuring the torches are finished in time, as there are 80 million holes to be cut.

The torch is made up of four key pieces – an inner and an outer aluminium alloy skin perforated by 8,000 circles that are held in place by a cast top piece and base. Tthe circles which run the length of the body of the torch also offer a unique level of transparency – allowing people to see right to the heart of the torch and view the burner system which will keep the olympic flame alive. The circles also help ensure heat is quickly dissipated without being conducted down the handle and providing extra grip.

The gold colour finish embraces the qualities of the olympic flame – the brightness and the warmth of the light that it shines. the 8,000 torches will have a gold-coloured finish that delivers an aesthetic beauty whilst having the ability to withstand the temperature of the olympic flame.

Ignoring the unwelcome comparisons, the designers said its triangular shape symbolises the three times that London has staged the Games in 1908, 1948 and 2012, the faster, higher stronger motto of the Olympic movement and the sport, education and culture triple vision of the 2012 Games.


Recently, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and paralympic games (LOCOG) unveiled prototypes of the london 2012 olympic torch designed by East London-based designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby, who won the competitive tender run by LOCOG and the design council that set the brief to design a torch that reflects the celebratory nature of the olympic torch relay and the Olympic Games.

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby explained: “ever since we were young we have loved the Olympic Games. As designers, this is quite simply the best project going: to design an icon for the games. We’ve wanted to be involved since July 2005 when we were celebrating winning the bid with the rest of the UK.”

We have worked hard to develop a torch that celebrates the relay, and reflects the passion for london and the olympic games. we wanted to make the most of pioneering production technologies and to demonstrate the industrial excellence available in the UK – it’s a torch for our time. This is our opportunity to represent the UK, in design terms, and we are incredibly proud to be doing so.’

We wanted to make the most of pioneering production technologies and to demonstrate the industrial excellence available in the UK – it’s a torch for our time. Barber and Osgerby worked closely with Basildon-based product engineers Tecosim and Coventry manufacturers Premier Sheet Metal to develop the prototypes for the Torch. The mass production of the Torches will start at the end of 2011.

The journey will begin next may in Ancient Olympia and end July 27 at London’s Olympic Stadium


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. 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.

Olympic rules state that the flame must be in public view for the entirety of the Olympics.

The Olympic Torch Relay ends on the day of the opening ceremony in the central stadium of the Games.

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 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.

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.



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, his arrow still lit it by igniting the gas rising from the cauldron.

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 Atlanta Paralympics, the scroll was lit by paraplegic climber Mark Wellman, hoisting himself up a 120 ft 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.

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.




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