The How the Olympic Torch works.


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 Berlin.

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

A 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 carry.

The Flame

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 brightly.

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 even begin.

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 Olympic Games.

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

the Olympic Torch.

 How the Olympic Torch works.