Exploring the Olympic Torch Relay and Olympic Cauldron Lighting Ceremony

Olympic Flame Lighting 2016

On Thursday of this past week (April 21) the Olympic flame for the XXXI (31st) Olympiad was lit, beginning its journey to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from Olympia, Greece via torch. The flame will arrive in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games after a trip to a number of prominent Olympic-related locales.

The Olympic Torch Relay is the path to the Opening Ceremony, which for Rio 2016 will be held at Maracaña Stadium on August 5. The Opening Ceremony is a very important part of the Olympics — and a very important moment within the overall ceremony is the culmination of the Torch Relay and the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron.

The Symbolism of the Olympic Torch Relay

Symbols and rituals give context to the important moments in life. As Olympic historians state, “the Olympic symbols and rituals are modern creations that link us with the religious rituals and symbols from ancient times, which give a transcendent meaning to the acts.”

The lighting of the Olympic cauldron is a critical moment of the Olympic Games. Not only does it signify the beginning of the Games, but the lighting of the Olympic cauldron is the most prominent symbolic act that ties the modern Olympics together with the ancient Olympics. But why does the fire that burns throughout the Games have such a deep-seeded significance to the Olympics? The answer lies in the mythology of ancient Greece.

Ancient Greeks considered fire a divine element. As the legend goes, fire was gifted to humans by Prometheus and it was believed to be sacred. As such, ancient Greeks maintained perpetual fires at their temples, including a permanent fire in the sanctuary at Olympia, where the ancient Olympic Games took place. For the ancient Olympic Games, the torches were lit using the rays of the sun and a skaphia (the predecessor of the mirrors used for lighting the Olympic flame today). During the ancient Olympics, a fire was kept burning at a central location throughout the event.

For each Olympics since 1936, there has been a torch relay. The relay originates from Olympia and ends in the Olympic stadium of the host city. The flame for torchbearers is ignited in a ceremony at the altar of Hera. A number of women dressed as ancient priestesses perform a ceremony surrounding the altar. One of the priestesses, dubbed the High-priestess, lights her torch using a parabolic, or concave, mirror. The ceremonial high priestess then uses her torch to ignite the torch of the first runner officially starting the relay.

Sochi torch relay initiation
A Greek actress, serving as the High-priestess, lights in the torch of the initial runner for the Sochi 2014 Games. (Photo Credit: timesofoman.com)

The torch relay harkens back to the messengers who spread the Olympic truce, according to Olympic.org. Modern day torch relays also try to promote peace and unity. The participants of the torch relays through the years traditionally have been notable people, many of which former Olympians. Other torchbearers have received the honor by some combination of accomplishment and fame.

The Olympic Cauldron Lighting Ceremony of Sochi 2014

The most recent lighting ceremony in Sochi, Russia was an example of a ceremony with predominately traditional elements, starting with the torchbearers. The torch was brought into Olympic stadium and carried throughout the ceremony by notable Russian Olympians of the past – both summer and winter.

The Sochi 2014 Olympic cauldron was also of traditional design and location. The design of the cauldron was based upon and inspired by a popular character in Russian fairytales – a Firebird. Designers brought the character to life via the cauldron by way of outstretched wings and a soaring head, crowned by the Olympic flame. Additionally, keeping in line with other Olympic cauldrons, it was very large in size (almost 100 meters or about 328 feet in diameter) and situated at a great height (nearly 50 meters or about 164 feet).

Sochi 2014 cauldron
The Sochi 2014 cauldron after lighting. Note that it is much more traditional in design than the London 2012 cauldron below. It was also located just outside the Olympic Stadium, more easily visible to those in the Olympic complex than the London 2012 cauldron. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

In fact, for ease of viewing by all fans visiting the Olympic complex during the Games, the cauldron was located just outside of Fisht Olympic Stadium. The two torchbearers selected to light the cauldron had to exit the stadium to complete the ceremony.

The Olympic Cauldron Lighting Ceremony of London 2012

In contrast, the location of the cauldron for the London 2012 Olympics was a departure from the norm. The cauldron was located within the Olympic Stadium – only visible firsthand to those with tickets to the athletics events, or to the opening and closing ceremonies. During opening ceremonies the cauldron was located in the middle of the field, but was moved prior to the start of the athletics events so it would not interfere with those competitions.

The location of the London 2012 cauldron wasn’t by happenstance. It was the product of an artistic thought process by its designer, Thomas Heatherwick, and opening ceremony organizers. “It’s almost that the stadium represents some kind of temple and it’s the flame that sits in the heart of that temple,” said Heatherwick. “The most powerful spot in the whole of that stadium is the very, very center.” The cauldron was tucked away in Wembley Stadium during the London Olympics of 1948 as well. But that wasn’t a coincidence for 2012. Heatherwick said the location was a nod to the 1948 Games and where the cauldron was placed in the old Wembley stadium.

Olympic Stadium in London after Opening Ceremonies
A view of the cauldron inside the Olympic Stadium at the conclusion of the opening ceremony. The location of the London 2012 cauldron was unique in that it could not been seen from the entire Olympic complex. (Photo Credit: totallycoolpix.com)

However, some Olympic fans were sorely disappointed by the cauldron’s location per Associated Press reports. One traveler from Ireland remarked at the time, “It’s unfortunate. I didn’t realize you couldn’t see it. I was going to walk around until I saw it. It seems quite poorly thought out.” A woman from London also chimed in saying, “That could’ve been made more user-friendly.”

The location of the cauldron wasn’t the only way the London 2012 lighting ceremony broke from tradition.

The torch was carried into the stadium by a notable figure like so many other times in the history of the torch relay. But, in this case, the torch was quickly passed off to a group of seven young athletes who were largely unknown to the public-at-large. The group ran around the stadium together each taking a turn holding the main torch before receiving a torch of his or her own for the lighting of the cauldron.

The cauldron itself also broke from tradition. It was made up of 204 individual petals (representing each competing nation), which, after being lit, rose to become one singular flame. In addition, as a result of Heatherwick’s want for an intimate feel, the cauldron was also comparably smaller than the cauldrons for previous Olympics. Heatherwick said in an interview that “We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn’t try to be even bigger than the last ones.”

London 2012 cauldron coming together
The many pieces of the London 2012 Olympic cauldron raising together to become one. (Photo Credit: Do You Design Too?)
London 2012 cauldron completed
The finished London 2012 cauldron. (Photo Credit: NPR)

Another unique aspect of the London 2012 cauldron is it became a parting gift for participating nations. Following the conclusion of the Games, the cauldron was dismantled during the London 2012 Closing Ceremony, and one of the copper petals was given to each of the competing nations to take home.

Perhaps due to having an Oscar-winning filmmaker at the helm, the theme of the London 2012 lighting ceremony came across stronger than in other lighting ceremonies. The overall theme of the London 2012 ceremony was individuals uniting to become a stronger whole. It was displayed throughout by having seven, mostly anonymous, torchbearers light the cauldron, as well as the cauldron itself be 204 petals that became one.

London 2012 cauldron interior
Camera view from inside the London 2012 cauldron. (Photo Credit: BBC)

Notably, from a TV production perspective, the London 2012 lighting ceremony culminated with a unique view. It was a shot from inside the cauldron, undoubtedly made possible because of the cauldron’s unique design. The shot showed the 204 individual flames raising up and becoming one.

Looking Forward to the Olympic Cauldron Lighting Ceremony of Rio 2016

Despite their differences, the lighting ceremonies of Sochi 2014 and London 2012 both fulfilled their purpose: to open their respective Olympic Games in style with a nod to the past, a focus on the present, and hope for a brighter future.

Considering the rich celebratory tradition of the country, it will be fun to see how the Brazilian Olympic Committee infuses its culture into the storied history of the Olympic Cauldron Lighting ceremony in just over 100 days.


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