The Olympic Flame or Olympic Fire is a symbol of the Olympic Games. Commemorating the theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus by Prometheus, its origins lie in ancient Greece, when a fire was kept burning throughout the celebration of the ancient Olympics. The fire was reintroduced at the Olympics in 1928, and it has been part of the modern Olympic Games ever since. The modern torch relay was introduced for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. It could be considered to be in ther spirit of the eternal flame.
The Olympic Torch Relay passes through Cincinnati, Ohio
Traditionally, the Olympic Torch is "lit by the Sun on Mount Olympus" and the torch carrier carries the Flame on foot to the site of the Olympic Games.
The Olympic Torch is nowadays ignited several months before the opening celebration of the Olympic Games at the site of the ancient Olympics in Olympia, Greece. Eleven priestesses (played by actresses) light the fire by placing a torch in a concave parabolic mirror which concentrates rays from the Sun.
The torch is then transported to the host city of the upcoming Olympics by means of a torch relay. Though traditionally, the fire is carried on foot, other means of transportation have been used as well. The runners have included athletes and celebrities, but many previously 'unknown' people have also carried it.
The Olympic Torch Relay ends on the day of the opening ceremony in the central stadium of the Games. The final carrier is often kept secret until the last moment, and is usually a sports celebrity of the host country. The final bearer of the torch runs towards the cauldron, usually placed at the top of a grand staircase, and then uses the torch to start the flame in the stadium. It is generally considered a great honor to be asked to light the Olympic Flame. After being lit, the flame continues to burn throughout the celebration of the Olympics and is extinguished at end of the closing ceremony of the Games.
For the ancient Greeks, fire had divine connotations — it was thought to have been stolen from the gods by Prometheus. Therefore, fire was also present at many of the sanctuaries in Olympia. A fire permanently burned on the altar of Hestia in Olympia. During the Olympic Games, which honoured Zeus, additional fires were lit at his temple and that of his wife, Hera. The modern Olympic flame is ignited at the site where the temple of Hera used to stand.
Fire did not appear at the modern Olympics until 1928. Dutch architect Jan Wils had included a tower in his design for the Olympic stadium for the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics and came up with the idea of having a fire burn throughout. On July 28, 1928 an employee of the Amsterdam electricity board lit the first Olympic fire in this so-called Marathontower, known as the "KLM's ashtray" by the locals.
The idea of an Olympic Flame was met with enthusiasm, and was incorporated as a symbol of Olympism. German sports official and sports scientist Carl Diem conceived the idea of an Olympic torch relay for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. More than 3,000 runners carried the torch from Olympia to Berlin. German track and field athlete Fritz Schilgen was the last to carry the torch, igniting the flame in the stadium. The torch relay also became part of the Olympic Games.
The Olympic Flame burned at the Winter Olympics in 1936 and 1948, but the first torch relay occurred at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo. The fire was not ignited in Olympia, but in Morgedal, Norway, in the fireplace of the home of Sondre Norheim, who pioneered the sport of skiing. The fire was also lit there in 1960 and in 1994. Except for 1956, the relay started in Olympia for all other Winter Games. In 1956, the relay began in Rome.
Although most of the time the torch with the Olympic Flame is still carried by runners, it has been transported in many different ways. The fire travelled by boat in 1948 to cross the English Channel, and it was first transported by aeroplane in 1952, when the fire travelled to Helsinki. In 1956, the equestrian events were held separately because of strict quarantine regulations in Australia. All carriers in the torch relay to Stockholm, where these events were held instead, travelled on horseback.
Remarkable means of transportation were used in 1976, when the fire was transformed to an electronic pulse. From Athens, this pulse was carried by satellite to Canada, where a laser beam was used to re-light the fire. In 2000, the torch was carried under water by divers near the Great Barrier Reef. Other unusual means of transportation include an Native American canoe, a camel, and Concorde.
Another means of catching attention has been the lighting of the fire in the stadium. At the 1992 Barcelona Games, Paralympic archer Antonio Rebollo shot a burning arrow into the cauldron from a platform at the opposite end of the stadium. Two years later, the Olympic fire was brought into the stadium of Lillehammer by a ski jumper.
At the Sydney Olympics in 2000 the cauldron carrying the flame became stuck for about three minutes, then continued on its way. According to Trevor Connell (who works for Australasian Special Events), there were several theories as to what happened,
- "First — a computer and/or mechanical hiccup. The other is that in order to keep the trick a secret it was never tested in full mode. The ring was hauled up by a counterbalance system, which was only tested in a 'dry run'. On the night the ring was loaded with fuel, which threw the balance out. Once enough fuel had burnt off the system balanced and then started its journey up the incline."  (http://www.specialevents.com.au/archiveprev/sydney2000/opening.html)
Over the years, it has become a tradition to let famous athletes or former athletes be the last runner in the relay. The first well-known athlete to light the fire in the stadium was nine-fold Olympic Champion Paavo Nurmi, who excited the home crowd in 1952. Other famous last bearers of the torch include French football star Michel Platini (1992), heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali (1996) and Australian aboriginal runner Cathy Freeman (2000).
On other occasions, the people who lit the fire in the stadium are not famous, but nevertheless symbolise Olympic ideals. Japanese runner Yoshinori Sakai was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day the nuclear weapon Little Boy destroyed that city. He symbolised the rebirth of Japan after the Second World War when he opened the 1964 Tokyo Games. At the 1976 Games in Montreal, two teenagers — one from the French-speaking part of the country, one from the English-speaking part — symbolised the unity of Canada. (Folklore has it that the two were later married, but that was not the case.)
Below is a full list of all persons who ended the Olympic Torch Relay by lighting the flame in the stadium.
- 1936 Summer Olympics: Fritz Schilgen, a track athlete.
- 1948 Summer Olympics: John Mark, a track athlete.
- 1952 Winter Olympics: Eigil Nansen, the grandson of polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen
- 1952 Summer Olympics: Paavo Nurmi, winner of nine Olympic gold medals in distance running in the 1920s.
- 1956 Winter Olympics: Guido Caroli, a speed skater who participated in the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympics. Skating with the torch, he tripped over a television cable but kept the flame burning.
- 1956 Summer Olympics: Ron Clarke and Hans Wikne (Stockholm). Long distance runner Clarke would later win an Olympic bronze medal in 1964 ; Hans Wikne later participated in the 1964 Olympics.
- 1960 Winter Olympics: Ken Henry, Olympic champion in 500 m speed skating at the 1952 Games.
- 1960 Summer Olympics: Giancarlo Peris, track athlete of Greek descent.
- 1964 Winter Olympics: Joseph Rieder, a former alpine skier who had taken part in the 1956 Olympics.
- 1964 Summer Olympics: Yoshinori Sakai, track and field athlete, born on the day the atom bomb exploded over his native Hiroshima.
- 1968 Winter Olympics: Alain Calmat, former figure skater, winner of the silver medal in the 1964 Olympics.
- 1968 Summer Olympics: Norma Enriqueta Basilio de Sotelo, a sprinter who participated in these Olympics. She was the first woman to be the last torch bearer.
- 1972 Winter Olympics: Hideki Takada, a student and speed skater.
- 1972 Summer Olympics: Günther Zahn, a middle distance runner.
- 1976 Winter Olympics: Christl Haas and Josef Feistmantl. Haas won the Olympic downhill title in 1964; Feistmantl won the luge doubles in the same year.
- 1976 Summer Olympics: Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, two teenagers.
- 1980 Winter Olympics: Charles Kerr, a psychiatrist from Arizona who had been elected from all bearers to run the final part.
- 1980 Summer Olympics: Sergey Belov, basketball player who won four Olympic medals, including a gold in 1972.
- 1984 Winter Olympics: Sandra Dubravčič, a figure skater who participated in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.
- 1984 Summer Olympics: Rafer Johnson, winner of the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics.
- 1988 Winter Olympics: Robyn Perry, a 12-year-old schoolgirl and figure skater.
- 1988 Summer Olympics: Sohn Kee-chung, marathon gold medalist in 1936, carried the torch into the stadium, and the relay was continued by Chung Sun-Man, Kim Won-Tak and Sohn Mi-Chung, three young track and field athletes. Kim took part in the Olympic marathon.
- 1992 Winter Olympics: Michel Platini and François-Cyrille Grange, both football players. Platini took part in the Olympics in 1976; Grange was eight years old at the time.
- 1992 Summer Olympics: Antonio Rebollo, an archer who competed in the Paralympic Games.
- 1994 Winter Olympics: Crown Prince Haakon of Norway. Both his father and grandfather took part in the Olympics.
- 1996 Summer Olympics: Muhammad Ali, the boxer who, then still under the name Cassius Clay, won Olympic gold in 1960.
- 1998 Winter Olympics: Midori Ito, figure skater, winner of Olympic silver in 1992.
- 2000 Summer Olympics: Cathy Freeman, a track and field athlete. She won the gold medal in the 400 m at these Olympics.
- 2002 Winter Olympics: The entire U.S. ice hockey team that won the Olympic gold medal in 1980.
- 2004 Summer Olympics: Nikolas Kaklamanakis, a Greek windsurfer.
The cauldron itself, as well as the pedestal it sits on, are always the subject of unique and often dramatic design. These also tie in with how the cauldron is lit during the Opening Ceremony. In Barcelona in 1992, an archer shot a flaming arrow immediately over the cauldron to light it. In Atlanta in 1996, the cauldron was an artistic scroll decorated in red and gold. At the 1996 Summer Paralympics, the scroll was lit by a paraplegic climber hoisting himself up a rope to the cauldron.
- Olympische Spiele – Die Chronik by Volker Kluge (five parts)
- IOC brochure on the history of Olympic Flame (1 MB PDF) (http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_655.pdf)
- Sondre Norheim - on the three occasions when the Olympic Flame was lit in Morgedal (http://www.sondrenorheim.com/olympics/)