Let the (Torch) Relay Begin!

On Thursday, 21 April 2016 the Olympic Flame was lit at a ceremony in Ancient Olympia.

The Flame
Though the torch relay begins in Greece, it only began as a tradition in 1936 at the Berlin Olympic Games. Torch relays have taken place at virtually every Olympic Games ever since.

The tradition of an "eternal flame" does date back to ancient Greek traditions commemorating the theft of fire from Zeus by Prometheus. The flame is lit every time using a parabolic mirror to capture the heat of the sun. A shorter video than the one above shows this briefly:

The Torch
One question I have wondered about (and I'm sure many others have too) is how the torch remains lit. First of all, the torch has a gas burner and are generally designed to shield from wind and rain

Every Olympic torch is a unique design and Brazil's torch is particularly colorful:


According to the official Rio Olympics page, the colors in the torch correspond to the sky, the mountains, the sea, and the ground, all important elements to the natural landscape of Brazil. For any design enthusiasts, a complete listing of past Olympic torches can be found here

The Relay

The torch relay often runs across continents, countries, and cities, culminating in a final hand-off that can be seen in the Olympic stadium during the Opening Ceremonies. Relays in more modern Games have gotten creative in where they send the Olympic flame and how they bring it there. My favorite highlight so far is when the torch was taken underwater during the Sydney 2000 Games.

Getty Images

The Rio relay will touch over 300 cities. The far-reaching nature of the Olympic torch relay is meant to cultivate Olympic spirit among citizens of neighboring countries and the host country, especially in areas that are relatively remote from the stadiums and events. 

The Torchbearers

A "torchbearer" refers to anyone chosen by the Olympic committee (IOC or the national Olympic committee) to carry the Olympic flame a portion of the way towards its destination. Torchbearers have traditionally been athletes, but in more modern times the list has expanded to include locals, celebrities, and more. Since most casual observers of the Games may only watch the beginning and end of the relay, these torchbearers are often give more significance and have stories important to the history of the country or the Olympic cause. At the Tokyo 1964 Games, the last torchbearer was Yoshinori Sakai, who was born on the day that the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima.

This year's Games will include a very unique torchbearer- Ibrahim Al-Hussein, who will be competing for the Team of Refugee Olympic Athletes (see my previous post about this topic if you haven't already). His complete story can be found here.

The Lighting of the Olympic Cauldron

For me, one of the most compelling moments of the Olympic Games is the lighting of the Olympic cauldron. Like the torch, the cauldron is uniquely designed to represent the host country and their interpretation of the Olympic mission. One of my favorites of all time was the London 2012 cauldron, which consisted of individual petals that, once lit, lifted to create a unified sculpture. 

Countries were given the petals to take home as souvenirs as well. 

The final torchbearers run with the flame into the Olympic stadium for a final handoff to light the cauldron. The Beijing committee got creative and had their runner appear to float in mid-air before reaching the cauldron. I don't think anyone could forget the lighting of the cauldron at the Atlanta 1996 Games by boxing gold medalist Muhammed Ali.

Though the design of the Olympic cauldron for the Rio Games has yet to be revealed, I am looking forward to following the relay and seeing the Olympic spirit come to the life in the form of the eternal flame.

Olympic flame in Lausanne, Switzerland (headquarters of the International Olympic Committee) copyright Amanda Evett

For anyone as nerdy as me looking for even more Olympic torch info, the IOC has a comprehensive PDF on the topic. 


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