One of the most dramatic events of the Olympics is the ceremony of the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron in the stadium on opening night. The Olympic flame is the symbol of the games. Everyone is anxious to see who will get the singular honor of carrying the torch into the stadium and lighting the Olympic Cauldron.
Normally, this individual is a former athlete or famous person of the host country. For example, Muhammed Ali, former gold medal winner (1960), world heavyweight boxing champion, and worldwide sports icon, had the honor in the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Other honorees include Paavo Nurmi (Helsinki, 1952), Cathy Freeman (Sydney, 2000), the US 1960 Olympic Hockey Gold Medalists (Salt Lake City, 2002), and Wayne Gretzky (Canada, 2010). Who will be the honoree this year? As I write this, it is still a well-kept secret. Based on the usual criteria, I would guess Pele, but other possibilities would include Oscar Schmidt, long-time international basketball star, and former gold medal winners Cesar Cielo, (swimming), Joaquim Cruz (track), or the women’s or men’s volleyball team as a group.
The concept of an Olympic flame can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, who, like most ancient peoples, worshipped fire as an element of the Gods. They maintained perpetual fires in their temples to honor their Gods as well as in Olympia the venue of the ancient Olympic Games. In order to foster the link between those ancient Games and the modern version, the flame is relit every Olympiad well in advance so it can complete its ceremonial journey to the site of that year’s Games. To maintain the “purity” of the flame it is lit as the ancients did, by using the sun’s rays.
This year it was lit in April and carried by over 12,000 torch bearers for four months over a distance of over 22,000 miles through Greece, Switzerland and Brazil by road and air. Once the torch arrived in Brazil it was transported through many different regions of the country, including over 300 towns and cities and 90% of the populace. The goal is to provide an Olympic experience to as many people as possible.
The torch’s route is not merely a straight line from Olympia to the host city’s stadium. It is a circuitous route that is determined by the overall theme of that year’s Olympics. First, the Hellenic Olympic Committee supervises the lighting of the flame in Olympia and its transport to Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, the site of the 1896 Games. Then, the host city’s Olympic Games Organizing Committee takes over. It determines the theme and route of the torch relay to its ultimate destination. Every Olympiad is different.
The original routes in 1936 (Berlin) and London (1948) were by foot carried solely by athletes. Over the years, the routes have become more elaborate, diversified and inclusive, with the general public participating as well. Some of the modes of transportation have been rather inventive and unique, as follows:
- In 1948 (London) and 2008 (Beijing) the torch was carried part of the way by boat.
- In 1952 Norwegian skiers carried the flame throughout the country to celebrate that country’s skiing heritage.
- In 1988 (Calgary) the flame made a detour to the Arctic Circle, transported part of the way by snow-bike and snow mobile.
- In 1968 (Mexico City), 2000 (Sydney) and 2010 (Vancouver) the torch was carried above and below the water by swimmers, divers and surfers, respectively.
- In 1976 (Montreal) the flame was actually transmitted, in part, by satellite utilizing heat sensors and a laser beam to light the cauldron.
- On three occasions (1996, 2000 and 2013), astronauts took the torch, but not the flame, into space.
The culmination of the torch relay is the grand and dramatic entrance into the stadium, following by the lighting of the cauldron. This marks the symbolic commencement of the Games.
Strangely, there is even a procedure to cover situations in which the flame, for whatever reason, is extinguished accidentally. This has actually happened more than once. There is actually a backup or spare flame for use in those situations. Once the flame in the cauldron just went out. Another time, a rainstorm extinguished the flame. On the latter occasion, an official merely relit it with a lighter. Apparently, this was a severe no-no. Organizers quickly re-extinguished the flame, relit it using a designated backup flame, and all was well in the world once again.
Each country designates a flag bearer. The bearer for the US this year will be Michael Phelps. Phelps has qualified for five Olympics, a remarkable testament to durability as well as talent. He is the most decorated athlete in Olympic history with 22 medals, including 18 gold, to his credit.
Congratulations to Michael, and go USA!