The Olympic flame is a symbol used in the Olympic movement. It is also a symbol of continuity between ancient and modern games.[1] Several months before the Olympic Games, the Olympic flame is lit at Olympia, Greece. This ceremony starts the Olympic torch relay, which formally ends with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. The flame then continues to burn in the cauldron for the duration of the Games, until it is extinguished during the Olympic closing ceremony.


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The Marathon Tower at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, where a symbolic flame burned in 1928

The first time that a symbolic flame made its appearance in the Summer Olympic Games was for the 1928 Summer Olympics in Amsterdam. The main purpose of this fire, placed in a large bowl on top of a slender tower, named "the Marathon Tower", was to indicate for miles around where in Amsterdam the Olympic Games were being held.[2] This tower was associated with the Marathon Race and all its elements, including the fire, were an idea of the architect Jan Wils who also had designed the stadium.

The idea for the Olympic flame was derived from ancient Greek ceremonies where a sacred fire was kept burning throughout the celebration of the ancient Olympics on the altar of the sanctuary of Hestia.[3][4] In Ancient Greek mythology, fire had divine connotations and it was thought to have been stolen from the gods by Prometheus. Sacred fires were present at many ancient Greek sanctuaries, including those at Olympia. Every four years, when Zeus was honoured at the Olympic Games, additional fires were lit at his temple and that of his wife, Hera. The modern Olympic flame is ignited every two years in front of the ruins of the temple of Hera.

When the idea of a symbolic fire was introduced during the 1928 Summer Olympics, an employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam lit the first symbolic flame in the Marathon Tower of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.[5] The Olympic flame and the Olympic torch relay was first introduced to the Summer Olympics at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

Main ceremonies

Lighting of the flame

Lighting the olympic flame in a dress rehearsal in Greece, using the sun's energy

The Olympic flame is ignited some weeks or months before the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games at the main site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece.

A group of women representing the Vestal Virgins[notes 1] (usually 11 in number) perform a celebration at the Temple of Hera, during which a fire is kindled by the light of the Sun, its rays concentrated by a parabolic mirror. The fire is used to light the first torch of the Olympic Torch Relay. An actress plays the role of the temple's main priestess and presents the torch and an olive branch to the first relay bearer (usually a Greek athlete who has already qualified to compete in that edition of the Games). This is followed by a recitation of a poem by Pindar, and the release of a flock of doves to symbolize peace.[citation needed]

At the beginning of the ceremony, the Olympic hymn is sung first followed by the national anthem of the country hosting the Olympics and the national anthem of Greece along with the hoisting of the flags.

Olympic torch relay, 1952
Olympic torch relay, 1996
Olympic torch relay, 2012
The 2014 Olympic torch in space during Soyuz TMA-11M

After the ceremony at Olympia the Olympic flame first travels Greece. It first goes to the Coubertin Grove on the site of the International Olympic Academy, where it is used to light an altar beside the final resting place of Pierre de Coubertin's heart.[6][7] The flame is then transferred during a ceremony in the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens from the Hellenic Olympic Committee to the current year's National Olympic Committee (NOC) and local Organizing Committee (OCOG) hosts.[8][9]

At the end of the first Olympic torch relay, the Olympic flame arrives in Berlin, 1936

The Olympic torch relay, which transports the Olympic flame from Olympia, Greece to the various designated sites of the Games, had no ancient precedent and was introduced by Carl Diem at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany.[10]

At the first Olympic torch relay, the flame was transported from Olympia to Berlin over 3,187 kilometers (1,980 miles) by 3,331 runners in twelve days and eleven nights. There were minor protests in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia on the way, which were suppressed by the local security forces.[11]

In the 1956 Melbourne Games in Australia, local veterinary student Barry Larkin protested against the relay when he tricked onlookers by carrying a fake flame, consisting of a pair of underpants set on fire in a plum pudding can, attached to a chair leg. He successfully managed to hand over the fake flame to the Mayor of Sydney, Pat Hills and escape without being noticed.[12][13][14]

The Olympic torch travels routes that symbolise human achievement or the history of the host country. 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 and 2012 to cross the English Channel and was carried by rowers in Canberra as well as by dragon boat in Hong Kong in 2008.[15]

It was first transported by airplane in 1952 when the flame 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 and transmitted from Europe to the New World: Heat sensors in Athens detected the flame, the signal was sent to Ottawa via satellite where it was received and used to trigger a laser beam to re-light the flame.[16][17] The torch, but not the flame, was taken into space by astronauts in 1996, 2000 and 2014.[18] Other unique means of transportation include a Native American canoe, a camel, and Concorde.[19] The torch has been carried across water; during the French leg of the 1968 Winter Olympics was carried across the port of Marseilles by a diver holding it aloft above the water.[20] In 2000, an underwater flare was used by a diver across the Great Barrier Reef en route to the Sydney Games.[21] In 2012 it was carried by boat across Bristol Harbour in the UK and on the front of a London Underground train to Wimbledon.

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 and future Summer Olympic cities, and finally returning to Greece for the 2004 Summer Olympics.

The 2008 Summer Olympics torch relay spanned all the five continents before proceeding through China. However, there was protests against China's human rights record in London where a "ring of steel" was formed around the flame to protect it, but one protester managed to grab hold of the torch while it was being held by television presenter Konnie Huq.[22] In Paris the torch was extinguished at least twice by Chinese officials (five times according to French police[23]) so that it could be transported in a bus amid protests while it was being paraded through Paris.[24][25] This eventually led to the cancellation of the relay's last leg in the city.[26] Demonstrations were also held in San Francisco and the route the torch would take was cut in half.[27]

As a result, in 2009, the International Olympic Committee announced that from the 2010 Winter Olympics, the future torch relays could be held only within the country hosting the Olympics after the initial Greek leg was finished.[28] Although this rule took effect with the 2010 Winter Olympics, the organizers of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro chose to hold their torch relays only in their respective hosting countries of United Kingdom, Russia and Brazil (except for brief stops in the United States, Ireland and Switzerland respectively).[29][30] In 2016, ten days before the beginning of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, citizens of Angra dos Reis, a city near Rio de Janeiro, managed to extinguish the Olympic flame during a protest against the city spending money on hosting the Olympics despite an economic crisis in Brazil.[31]

The Olympic torch relay in the host country ends with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony in the central host stadium of the Games. The final carrier is often kept unannounced until the last moment. Over the years, it has become a tradition to let a famous athlete of the host nation, former athletes or athletes with significant achievements and milestones be the last runner in the Olympic torch relay.

Re-igniting the flame

It is not uncommon for the Olympic flame to be accidentally or deliberately extinguished during the course of the torch relay (and on at least one occasion the cauldron itself has gone out during the Games). To guard against this eventuality, multiple copies 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.

The current design of the torch has a safeguard built into it: There are two flames inside the torch. There is a highly visible (yellow flame) portion that burns cooler and is more prone to extinguish in wind and rain, but there is also a smaller hotter (blue in the candle's wick) 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 contained inside the torch is able to keep it lit for approximately 15 minutes before it would be extinguished.[33]

Selected relays in detail

See also: List of Olympic torch relays

2016 Summer Paralympics torch relay

The flame is transported from Greece to the host country where the flame is transported by torch around the host nation to the main stadium.

Olympic cauldron lighting

Paavo Nurmi lighting the Olympic flame in Helsinki in 1952

During the opening ceremony 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. The climactic transfer of the Olympic flame from the final torch to the cauldron at the central host stadium marks the symbolic commencement of the Games.

As with being the final runner of the Olympic torch relay, it is considered to be a great honor to light the Olympic cauldron, and in the same way it has become a tradition to select notable athletes to conduct this part of the ceremony. 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 on the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. He was chosen for the role to symbolize Japan's postwar reconstruction and peace, opening 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.

At the 2012 Games in London, the torch was carried by Sir Steve Redgrave to a group of seven young British athletes (Callum Airlie, Jordan Duckitt, Desiree Henry, Katie Kirk, Cameron MacRitchie, Aidan Reynolds and Adelle Tracey)  — each nominated by a British Olympic champion — who then each lit a single tiny flame on the ground, igniting 204 copper petals before they converged to form the cauldron for the Games.

An Asian man in red and white athletic shirt and shorts, and wearing athletic shoes, is suspended by wires in the air while holding a lit torch. In the background, a large crowd in a stadium can be seen, as well as two blurred flags.
Li Ning, a Chinese gymnast, lit the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics after "flying" around the stadium on wires.

See also: List of people who have lit the Olympic cauldron

The first well-known athlete to light the cauldron in the stadium was the ninefold Olympic Champion Paavo Nurmi, who excited the home crowd in Helsinki in 1952. In 1968, Enriqueta Basilio became the first woman to light the Olympic Cauldron at the Olympic Games in Mexico City.

Perhaps one of the most spectacular of Olympic cauldron lighting ceremonies took place at the 1992 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, when Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo lit the cauldron by shooting a burning arrow over it, which ignited gas rising from the cauldron,[34][35] although there are theories that the cauldron was manually forced to ignite.[36][37][38] Two years later, the Olympic fire was brought into the stadium of Lillehammer by a ski jumper. In Beijing 2008, Li Ning "ran" on air around the interior edge of the Beijing National Stadium's roof, and lit a cauldron attached to it.

Olympic cauldron designs

The cauldron and the pedestal are always the subjects of unique and often dramatic design. These also tie in with how the cauldron is lit during the Opening Ceremony. After being lit the flame in the Olympic cauldron continues to burn during the Games, until the closing ceremony, when it is finally put out symbolizing the official end of the Games.


The Olympic flame has been used as a symbol and a main motif numerous times in different commemorative coins. A recent example was the 50th anniversary of the Helsinki Olympic Games commemorative coin, minted in 2002. In the obverse, the Olympic flame above the Earth can be seen. Finland is the only country highlighted; it was the host of the 1952 games.


Prior the 2002 Winter Olympics, professor Bob Barney co-authored the book Selling the Five Rings (2002), with Stephen Wenn and Scott Martyn, which discussed the history of corporate sponsorships and television rights for the Olympic Games.[49][50] Barney argued that the Olympic torch had been commercialized since its inception in 1936, and that sponsors of the torch relay benefit from brand awareness; whereas the medal podium ceremonies which began in 1932, had not become commercialized since no advertising is allowed inside Olympic venues.[51]

See also


  1. ^ The Roman Vesta is derived from the Greek goddess Hestia. Hestia's rituals at the founding of a new settlement also included the transfer of a continuous flame from the founding city.
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