HOW THE OLYMPIC TORCH WORKS
THE LONGEST LIST OF THE LONGEST
STUFF AT THE LONGEST DOMAIN NAME AT LONG LAST
How does the Olympic torch work?
Every two years people across the world, whether they
live in a small town or huge city, wait anxiously as the Olympic torch is
carried through their hometown. This torch of course, symbolizes that the
Olympic games are about to start and that the world is about to meet once again
for an athletic competition. But while this run through any particular city or
town may only take a couple of hours, the torch has traveled a very long way
since then, and its journey is not always an easy one. With mountains that need
to be climbed over, oceans that need to be crossed, and sometimes very harsh
weather conditions, the Olympic torch passes through just about anything you
could imagine. And yet, it always stays lit. How does this happen and how
exactly, does the Olympic torch work?
The first noticeable thing about the torch is of
course, the flame. Fire has always held significant meaning for people. It has
been known to be the symbol of life, and can also help keep us warm, as well as
light our way in the dark. In Ancient Greece, fire was revered even more. This
was because the mythical god Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to the
humans. To celebrate the fact that they now had fire, the Greeks would hold
relay races that contained many runners. At the end of each of their legs, one
runner would pass a fire-bearing torch to the next runner so that the second
runner could then begin his leg of the race.
The first Olympic Games were held in 776 B.C. The
games were held every four years in Olympia, Greece and they honored Zeus and
the other Greek gods. But these games held other significance as well. The games
were also a time that peace was called throughout the world. The states of
Greece would often be at war with each other, and each year before the games
were held, runners would run through the states. These runners were called
“heralds of peace” and they signified that a time of “sacred truce” had been
declared. This truce would be in effect for the entire time the games were on.
But the Olympic flame certainly wasn’t the first
flame to keep burning in Greece. Because the Greeks paid such special attention
to fire, they had many cauldrons set up that would continually burn. The Greek
gods had altars that would often have flames burning in them in honor of that
god. Hera, the goddess of birth and marriage, also had a cauldron. And it was
this altar that the Greeks would place a cauldron on in which a flame could be
lit. A large hollow disc or a mirror called a skaphia would be used to light the
cauldron. This would collect the sun’s rays into a single stream so that it
could light the cauldron. This flame would then burn for the entirety of the
games to symbolize peace, purity, and reason.
The Greeks only held their Olympic Games for about
a thousand years. Because of this, the torch relays and the ceremonial lighting
of the flame was also discontinued. The Olympic Games did make a comeback though
in 1896 in Athens, Greece. However, getting the torch relay back as part of the
ceremony and the games wasn’t reinstated right away.
In 1928, the Olympic Games in Amsterdam brought
back the tradition of including the symbol of fire with the Olympic Games. A
cauldron was lit but there was no relay beforehand. The first modern day Olympic
Games relay wasn’t held until the Berlin Summer Games, which took place in 1936.
Carl Diem, who was Secretary General of the Organizing Committee of the Games
reintroduced the relay as part of connecting the current day’s games to its
historic roots. To tie the modern day games into the ones that took place in
Ancient Greece, the flame was first lit in Olympia, Greece and then carried to
However, it still wasn’t until the 1952 winter games in Oslo, Norway that the
relay of the flame was introduced. This was the only event where the torch was
not first lit in Olympia, Greece. Because Norway is the birthplace of skiing,
the flame was originally lit in the same place where the games would take place.
And it wasn’t until 1964 at the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, that the flame
started being lit in Olympia. Ever since then though, the flame has started
being lit in Olympia, Greece, without missing a single year!
How an Olympic Torch is Designed
different Olympic torch is used every year to make the long trek. In order to
decide who’s going to be the privileged ones that get to design the world-known
torch, teams of designers each draw, plan, and propose their idea for the torch.
These proposals are submitted to the Olympic Committee, who will award the
project to one of the teams of designers.
The team that’s chosen to design the torch has a
big responsibility. Not only does the torch have to be able to house a flame,
but it also has to have an aesthetically-pleasing design. The designers will
work with an engineering team to ensure that the flame will not damage the
torch, will burn continuously, and will not be affected by some severe weather
conditions. The first modern Olympic torch in the 1936 Olympics was made of a
narrow steel rod that had a circular piece placed on the end. It was from this
circular piece that the flame came out of. This torch was also engraved with a
tribute to the runners.
The torch came to look how it does today from the
1960 Winter Olympics that was designed by John Hench. Those Olympics were held
in Squaw Valley, California. What was momentous about this torch was that it
paved the way for what all future Olympic torches would look like. Ever since
that time, all future designers of the Olympic sword have strived to create a
torch that could be a tribute to the country that’s hosting the games, as well
as the theme for that Olympic Games.
The Olympic torch usually takes at least a year to
fully design, and sometimes even two. Once it has been built, it is then put
through a rigorous series of tests to make sure that it will be able to
withstand the different conditions it will need to be carried through. Once it’s
found that the torch is suitable for the Olympic relay, it then must be
replicated – about 1500 times. All of these torches must be created so that the
runners can hold them as they proudly run through the city. Different torches
are used for different runners and at the end of a leg, that runner is then
given the chance to buy their torch.
Although Olympic torches strive to be uniquely
different year after year, there are three components that every Olympic torch
must possess. It must have an area that can hold the fuel for the flame; it must
have a delivery system for getting the fuel from inside the torch out of the
top; and a design that is aerodynamic, lightweight, and safe for the runners to
Of course, the most important aspect of the torch is
the flame. Even though it may seem like a complicated system of having a place
to house the fuel and get the fuel up to the top of the torch, the flame
actually encompasses much more than that. Not only does the torch need to be
able to house enough fuel to last the entire length of the leg, but it also
needs to have an extra bit of fuel just in case the run takes longer than
expected. The torch must also have a way of protecting the runner from the heat
radiating off the torch, as well as protect them from any burning debris that
might fall off the torch while it’s being used. One last thing that the flame
needs to be able to do is be visible – even when the sun is shining down on it
The earliest fuel that was used for the Olympic
torch was usually gunpowder or olive oil. Other torches used a mixture of
hexamine and naphthalene. The former is a mixture of ammonia and formaldehyde,
while the latter is the hydrogen and carbon based substance found in moth balls.
However, not only was this not the most efficient way to fuel the torch but it
sometimes proved to be dangerous too. In 1956 under this type of fuel, some
chunks fell out of the flame and burnt the runner’s arms quite seriously. In
1972 the first liquid fuel was used to light the torch and liquid fuel has been
used ever since. Liquid gases are much more desirable for the Olympic torch
because it’s very light and can easily be held in a canister, as well as being
much safer for the runner.
In most Olympic torches, the liquid fuel canister
is located about halfway up the torch. A pipe is connected to the canister and
travels up to the top of the torch. At the end of this pipe is a tiny hole that
the gas must travel through before it is released out of the top of the torch.
As the gas passes through this hole, the pressure in it decreases and this makes
the liquid gas turn into gas. This liquid fuel is always being passed at the
same flow rate. This is so that the torch can keep burning the same amount of
fuel and keep a constant flame.
Sometimes, designers will put a dual flame on their
torches. This relies on one exterior flame and one interior flame and they’re
used so that the flame will not blow out in windy conditions. The exterior flame
is extremely bright, but won’t hold up against wind very well. The interior
flame is very difficult to blow out, even for the toughest winds, but it’s not
very bright. If the exterior flame is ever blown out, the interior flame is
strong enough to relight the exterior flame so that both are always going. And
in 2000,when the torch was destined to travel under water so that it could make
its way across the Great Barrier Reef, it was designed with a special flare that
would allow it to do so.
The Lighting of the Torch
Finally, after all the design elements are in place,
and the torch has been tested to make sure it has all the necessary components,
and all the replicas are made, the torch is finally lit. It’s lit at the Temple
of Hera in Olympia, Greece, and this is actually done months before the games
It all starts with an actress, dressed in
ceremonial Roman garb just like they were the first year the Olympics was held,
long ago in the times of B.C. The torch is also lit the way it has been
traditionally, using a mirror to redirect the sun’s rays. The mirror has a
concave shape and at the center, there is so much heat produced that it can
actually light the fuel coming from the torch. However because of this process,
the sun must be shining fairly brightly on the day of the torch lighting. But
there is a backup plan should this happen. Several days before the official
torch-lighting ceremony begins, another Olympic torch is lit with the mirror.
This torch can light the official Olympic torch on the day of the ceremony
should it not be sunny enough for the mirror to light it.
Once the torch has been lit, it is then carried to a cauldron that sits on an
altar in the ancient Olympic stadium. There it is used to light the first
runner’s torch and the relay will officially begin. The torch the first runner
is carrying will then light the next torch, and so on until the Olympic torch
reaches its final destination. For the winter games, the relay is actually
started at the monument to Pierre de Coubertin, who is the founder of the first
Once the torch is lit, the runners will finish
their leg and pass the torch to the next runner. However, they don’t pass the
actual torch. What they do is light the next torch with theirs, and that
continues until the last runner’s torch in the host city is lit. Runners are
surrounded by medical teams, Olympic officials, and other torches during their
leg to ensure that the leg goes smoothly. Certain people might be chosen for
certain legs such as athletes, politicians, sports figures, celebrities, or
anyone else who is widely known and has made a contribution to society. Olympic
sponsors are also usually allowed to choose a few people from their organization
that they would like to see carrying the torch. The last person to carry the
torch into the Olympic stadium is usually kept top secret until that revealing
moment at the Olympic Games. This runner will do one lap around the track
holding the torch, until they carry it over to the massive Olympic torch and
light the flame with their torch. This signifies that the Olympic Games have
begun, and it will remain lit for the duration of the event. At the closing
ceremonies, the flame in the torch will be extinguished, signaling that the
Olympic Games have come to an end.
The design, look and feel of the Olympic torch is
bound to change over time. And with all the technology that’s still on the
horizon, who knows just how much farther the Olympic torch has to go in design
and functionality elements. What’s sure not to change though is the history
behind it, and the celebration of the history – which is something we should all
be thankful for!
The Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch