The Amazing (Mis)Adventures of the Olympic Torch, Past and Present

The iconic torch has a life of its own. The Sochi model even went to space.

The Sochi Olympic torch song—the traditional relay of the Olympic flame from Greece, site of the original games, to this year's venue in Russia—hit a few flat notes along the way.

The torch suffered multiple flame-outs, including one en route to the Kremlin ("I wouldn't devote any special attention to what happened," a Russian official on the organizing committee commented). A torchbearer accidentally set himself on fire (he wasn't injured). And a 73-year-old man died of a heart attack shortly after doing his leg of the relay.

In the course of its chest-thumping 40,000-mile journey, the torch was plunged to the bottom of the world's deepest lake, Siberia's Lake Baikal; ferried to the North Pole by a nuclear-powered icebreaker; carted up the highest peak in Russia, Mount Elbrus; and even took a short walk in space with two Russian cosmonauts (flame extinguished) at the International Space Station.

For the first time in history, the Olympic torch reached the North Pole.

The torch—centerpiece of the opening ceremonies at 8 p.m. Sochi time on Friday—is aluminum with red detailing (a very Russian color), weighs nearly four pounds (1.8 kilograms), is about three feet high (92 centimeters), and is evocative of a phoenix feather (also very Russian—think Firebird fairy tales).

It's actually not the same torch that is passed from one torchbearer to another. It's the flame itself. For the Sochi Olympics, 14,000 torches were manufactured for 14,000 torchbearers.

Torch Tidbits

The Olympic torch relay is a relatively modern event. It made its debut at the infamous 1936 Summer Games held in Berlin and presided over by Adolf Hitler. It was a Nazi invention with overtones of propaganda, writes Max Fisher in the Atlantic, "typical of the Reich's love of flashy ceremonies and historical allusions to the old empires."

This early black-and-white photo shows the first Olympic torch relay in Berlin, Germany, 1936.

Today's ceremony has nothing to do with all of that, of course. "The runners who carry the Olympic flame carry a message of peace on their journey," the International Olympic Committee says in their fact sheet.

This illustration of the ancient Olympic torch relay shows a runner protecting the flame with his shield.

Historically, the idea reaches back to the ancient Greek races known as lampadedromia, or "torch races." The torch symbolized fire, a divine element that was, according to myth, stolen from the gods and given to man by Prometheus.

Today's flame is lit using the sun's rays reflected off a parabolic mirror, which the IOC says "guarantees the purity of the flame."

Wendy Craig-Duncan, a marine biologist, carries the Sydney Olympic torch over the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia.

Olympia, Greece, is the departure point for all torches, but after that anything goes—including travels by space capsule, plane, boat, horseback, canoe, bicycle, London Underground, and reindeer sleigh. The torches' adventures include:

  • An underwater visit to the Great Barrier Reef (Sydney, Australia, 2000)

  • A ride on the Concorde (Albertville, France, 1991)

  • A blessing by Pope Benedict XVI (Turin, Italy, 2006)

  • Being sent in coded impulses from a satellite in Greece to Canada, where a laser translated the code back into a flame (Montreal, Canada, 1976)

In addition to being arguably the premier emblem of the Olympics, the torch is highly collectible. The record price paid for a torch was €290,000 (nearly $600,000 AUD) at an auction house in Paris, in 2011. That sterling silver and birchwood torch, used in the Helsinki Games in 1952, was one of only 22 made for that year's relay.

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