The fascinating tale of the Olympic torch

It’s a grand tradition: the Olympic flame, the Olympic torch and the cross-country torch run bringing the flame from Greece to wherever the Olympics are held — in 2012, London!

Running the torch is a great honour. Kids, celebrities, major donors, aging athletes all get in on the act, running for a mile or so with the Olympic flame held high.

Heralds of peace
The Greeks held their first Olympics in 776 B.C. At the start of the Games, runners called “heralds of peace” would travel throughout Greece, declaring a “sacred truce” to all wars between rival city-states. The truces remained in place for the duration of the Games, allowing spectators safe travel to the Olympics. However, they didn’t carry torches.

The Olympic Torch run is part of the 3,000-year-old tradition of the Olympiad, right? Well, yes and no.

This classic Athenian vase portrays the handing off of a baton in a relay race — but there’s no flame.

The idea of an Olympic flame is based on an ancient tradition at the original games of commemorating the theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus by Prometheus. Throughout the celebration of the ancient Olympics, the flame burned.

Another theory behind the tradition of the Olympic torch run is that fabled sprint of the Greek soldier Pheidippides, who brought news to Athens that the Battle of Marathon had been won.

No such flame burned when the games were revived in 1896, however three candles were lit at the 1912 games in Stockholm. An Olympic flame burning throughout the event was introduced at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam — but there was no torch run.

A Viking flame
This tradition was unique to the summer Olympics until the winter games of 1952 in Oslo. Norwegians believe their country was the homeland of an ancient equivalent of the winter Olympiad – and so they came up with their own Norse version of the torch.

Kindled from the sun
For the 1936 games, two scientists, Greek Loannis Ketseas and German Carl Diem, amplified sunlight with a concave mirror to light a torch at the ruins of the temple of Hera on the slopes of Mt. Olympus. Relay runners then carried the flame by foot to Berlin. The tradition has continued ever since.

Around the globe
The opening ceremony is the end of a long journey for the Olympic torch. By the time it arrives in the stadium, it has traveled thousands of miles. It may have crossed oceans and deserts and traversed mountains. It may have been carried on planes, trains, bicycles, boats, and even dog sleds. And it will have passed through the hands of thousands of different people around the globe.

Each year, sponsors put their own original touch on the torch run. For the 1976 Montreal games — to emphasize the equality of the sexes — a teenage boy and girl together carried the torch on the final stretch and ignited a larger torch which burned throughout the games.

In 1998, in Nagano Japan, the torch was lit by Briton Chris Moon, a member of a United Nations international peacekeeping mission who had lost his right arm and leg while disarming landmines in Mozambique. Moon, who runs with an artificial leg, sprinted into the stadium encircled by children.

For the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, the flame was carried into the opening ceremonies by Antonio Rebolo, an archer who fired a flaming arrow into the Olympic bowl.

Keep the flame burning
The look of the modern Olympic torch originated with John Hench, a Disney artist who designed the torch for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. His design provided the basis for all future torches. Since then, designers have tried to create a torch that represents the host country and the theme for that Olympic Games.

The torch must be tested rigorously in all kinds of weather conditions. And it’s not just one torch making the journey to the Olympic stadium. As many as 15,000 torches are created to accommodate the thousands of runners who carry them through each leg of the long relay. Each runner gets to keep the torch he or she carried.

Although torch design and construction vary from year to year, the torch must always contain fuel to create the flame, a fuel delivery system to get the flame out of the top of the torch and a lightweight design safe for the runner to carry.

Soon the symbolic lighting of the Olympic flame will mark the beginning of another historic Olympic Games!

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