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OLYMPIC HISTORY: History of the Olympic flame

February 21, 2014
By ALISON HAAS , Lake Placid News

With all the anticipation and excitement of the torch relay leading up to the Olympics and the lighting of the cauldron, it is hard to believe that the Winter Games in Sochi will soon be coming to an end once the sacred flame is extinguished at the Closing ceremony. It should be noted here that this is the only time the flame should be extinguished since it is considered sacred.

As one of the most iconic Olympic symbols, the Olympic flame, was conceived as a symbol unifying the ancient and modern games. In ancient Greece, fire was considered to be a divine element and the Greeks maintained a perpetual fire in front of their temples. At the sanctuary of Olympia, where the ancient Olympic games took place, the flame was lit using the rays of the sun, to ensure its purity and burned permanently.

Today, the flame symbolizes Olympic spirit and is guaranteed pure by the way it is lit using the sun's rays. The flame is carried by relay from Olympia all the way to its final destination, the Olympic stadium in the host city of the games.

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In 1936, when the first relay was organized, experiments were necessary to determine the best shape for the torch and the most suitable method to fuel the Olympic flame. Today, a gas cartridge in the body of the torch is the most popular solution chosen. During the relay, the flame must never go out, and the torch needs to stand up to difficult weather conditions and the most unusual modes of transport to ensure that the flame burns reliably.

This year, the flame traveled a record setting 39,000-mile journey being carried by 14,000 torchbearers taking part in the relay, each carrying their own torch and passing the flame to one another. It took the plunge into the world's deepest freshwater lake with a special torch, reached the North Pole and was taken into space by Russian cosmonauts (the only time the torch was intended to not burn). Unfortunately, the flame for the Olympics in Sochi had a history of flickering in and out on dozens of occasions and in one incident, it was reported that a security guard quickly took out his lighter and reignited the torch.

Knowing that sometimes this happens, there is often a backup sacred flame source that can be used if the flame does go out, but it is a mystery to why the backup was not used in that instance.

Although the Sochi 2014 torch underwent rigorous stress testing and the designers paid particular attention to its flame-lighting system, the design of the torch still had some mishaps.

When visitors see our collection of Olympic torches, many are surprised to learn that for each edition of the games, a new model of torch is designed to very high technical and aesthetic standards. In the early days of the relay, the torch models were more or less the same, but over time their designs became diverse showing the uniqueness of each host country.

For instance, one can see on display the Nagano 1998 torch, influenced by the traditional Japanese "taimatshu" torch used in festivals, and the torch constructed for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, was made of glass, silver and copper symbolizing winter and ice, the heart and speed of athletes, and also fire and passion.

The Sochi 2014 torch is chrome with red detail, red being the traditional color of Russian sport and was designed in the shape of a feather, reminiscent of the legendary bird, the Phoenix. The bird rose from the ashes and is featured in Russian folklore as a symbol of good fortune and happiness.

Although many blamed the technical design aspects of the torch for the problems with the continuity of the flame throughout the relay, the arrival of the final flame in the opening ceremony stadium by 1980 Olympic greats, Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretjak, successfully lit the cauldron for the duration of the 22nd Olympic Winter Games.

Before we know it, another four years will have gone by and all eyes will be on Pyeongchang, Korea, and the world will anxiously await the arrival of the Olympic flame to signal the opening of the 2018 Olympic Winter Games.

To learn more about the Olympic Games and to see our collection of torches, please visit the Lake Placid Olympic Museum.

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and Ironman Sunday.

For more information about the museum, see our Facebook page.



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