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The Weirdest Things We’ve Done to the Olympic Torch



Runners carry the Olympic Flame from Greece to Germany during 1936's "Nazi Olympics." (Photo: German Federal Archives/CC BY-SA 3.0)

This evening, Rio will kick off the 2016 Summer Games with the kind of hoopla reserved especially for televised international athletic events. Although the opening ceremony's masterminds are keeping the details a secret, we can count on seeing some genre standards: a lot of song and dance; a long parade of athletes; maybe a weird costume or 100; and the lighting of the Olympic flame, by the latest in a long line of Olympic torches.

But whatever happens to the torch in Rio, it can't possibly top what it's been through for the last few decades.

The torch must operate according to special rules. Months before the Games begin, it is lit in the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, by a group of actresses dressed as Vestal Virgins. After a ceremony featuring much dancing and flute-playing, the lead faux-Virgin dips the torch into a special parabolic mirror, which concentrates the sun's rays into a fiery burst—the Olympic Flame. According to the Olympic Charter, this is the only official flame, and it must be kept going until the games are formally closed. (For emergencies, there are generally a few backup flames, conjured at the dress rehearsal.) 


The torch makes it doggedly through Rio. (Photo: HVL/CC BY 3.0)

This year's torch has been through a lot. The 2016 Olympics have been dogged by protests, as many residents object to local corruption, rampant inequality, and the Games' high cost. Plenty of those upset have focused on the flame, attacking it with fire extinguishers and buckets of water. One group, in the beach town of Angra do Reis, even managed to put it out

But this is not the first weird trip the torch has had. Fragile, blatantly symbolic, and asked to travel the world, this fiery beacon has always been a magnet for grievance-airing and strange braggadocio. Here are five of the strangest things we've done to it.

1. The All-Aryan Torch Relay (1936)


Children admire the Olympic Flame in Berlin in 1936. (Photo: Josef Jindřich Šechtl/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Sure, the idea of a torch relay seems pretty Greek. But although the flame itself is a tradition that dates back to ancient times, the torch didn't show up until the 1936 Berlin Games, now better known as the Nazi Olympics. The whole shebang, from the lighting ceremony to the international relay to the final lighting of the cauldron, was carefully designed by Nazi leadership, meant to drum up publicity for the Games, but also to draw a connection between Ancient Greece and the Third Reich.

"Taking inspiration from ancient ways, the Organising (sic) Committee of the Berlin Games had initially planned to convey the flame by means of a bundle of slow-burning fennel stalks," writes Olympic.org. Instead, the first torches were made by Krupp, the steel company that would later outfit the German army with cannons and artillery, with a workforce that included Jewish slaves. As this new tradition played out, even international commentators bought into the implied message. "He's a fair young man in white shorts," said the BBC, as one Aryan athlete ran the torch into the stadium. "He's beautifully made."

2. The Underwear Torch (1956)

The real 1956 torch... or is it? (Photo: McKim/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Since 1936, a number of anti-torch protesters have specifically cited its Nazi origins when going after it with fire extinguishers and buckets of water. But plain old dousing is child's play compared to history's best torch prank, which occurred in Australia in 1956.

En route to the Olympic Stadium in Melbourne, the torch was run through Sydney by a cross-country champ, who was meant to pass it off to the city's mayor, Pat Hills. Just before the appointed hour, an unusually sweaty man in unusually fancy clothes came trotting up the Town Hall steps with the torch, and passed it off to Hills. As the crowd applauded and the man retreated, Hills noticed that his hand was surprisingly sticky. The torch, it turned out, was not the torch—it was a plum pudding can nailed to a chair leg, recently spray-painted silver, and fueled by a kerosene-soaked pair of underwear.

The man was not a cross-country champ, but Barry Larkin, a veterinary student at Sydney University. (A different student, dressed more appropriately, had been meant to deliver the torch, but he got too nervous and passed it off to Larkin, yelling "Run, you bastard!") Larkin and his friends escaped the scene just before the real torch arrived and pandemonium broke out. "Most of the students were a bit upset about the way the torch was being regarded as a bit of a god," he told the Sydney Herald in 2000. Now he gets to be a god instead.

3. The High-Tech Torch (1976)


Montreal's 1976 Olympic stadium definitely looks like it could pick up a satellite signal. (Photo: Acarpentier/CC BY 3.0)

Like many artists, Olympic Flame Relay directors are always trying to outdo themselves. In the first 40 years of its existence, the torch had traveled by running human, swimming human, airplane, boat, and horse, to name just a few conveyances. So when faced with the task of bringing the flame to Montreal in 1976, they had to think hard—what new transportation was available? What ground was there to break?

It was the '70s, and the answer was soon clear—it was time to beam the flame to space and back, via a specifically designed contraption and a telecommunications satellite. "The flame will be placed in a special electronic altar which will convey it through echo waves and via satellite to light up a torch in Ottawa seconds later," explained Connecticut's Bridgeport Post at the time. The details on this are slightly fuzzy, but it seems the "altar" in Greece contained a sensor, which transformed the light of the flame into radio waves. That signal was then beamed, via satellite, to Montreal, where it triggered a laser that lit the new flame.

Organizers billed it as "the first Olympic record broken" during that year's competition, as what usually took at least the length of a plane ride had been condensed into a few seconds. Although not everyone was into it—Greeks, especially, felt something was being lost—the whole thing went off without a hitch. Twelve Canadian athletes then ran the flame to Montreal on their boring, earth-bound legs, and lit the cauldron. A few days later, perhaps in protest, a rainstorm put it out. Thinking quickly, a nearby official rekindled it with another impressive piece of technology—a cigarette lighter.

Unimpressed by these lightning-fast instincts, the organizers insisted on putting out the relit flame, and replacing it with fire from the reserve. When it comes to modern technology, lasers beat Bics every time.

4. The Underwater Torch (2000)


What this reef needs is more flames. (Photo: Toby Hudson/CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 2000, perhaps fearing it was growing complacent, the organizers decided to bring the torch face to face with its ultimate enemy—water. On its way to the Sydney Olympics, they diverted it down to the Great Barrier Reef. "The torch spent three minutes submerged at a popular diving spot," the BBC reported. Scientists designed a special flare, which burned at such a high pressure that it blocked water from entering the torch. It was carried by a diver dressed in a silver wetsuit.

Not to be outdone, organizers of the Sochi Olympics sent the torch underwater again in 2014. This time, it went to the world's deepest freshwater lake, Russia's Lake Baikal, and the final torchbearer burst out of the water via jetpack. Onward and upward.

5. Torches In Space (2014)


Cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin carries the torch into the ISS in 2013. (Photo: NASA/Public Domain)

Ok, the flame "went" to space way back in 1976. But as of 2013, despite two jaunts on space shuttles in 1996 and 2000, the torch had yet to truly experience that cold, dark void. This would not do. On November 7th of that year, a rocket docked at the International Space Station bearing a suitably international delegation—an American astronaut, a Japanese astronaut, a Russian cosmonaut, and the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Torch.

Unwilling to be left out of even the most ridiculous of Earthly traditions, the new and old ISS astronauts proceeded to pass the torch around the station (which, in NASA's words, is about as big as "a house with five bedrooms"). Then two of them, Oleg Kotov and Sergey Ryazan, took a historic leap—they brought the torch outside, and passed it to each other once again. Then they sent it back home, where it was immediately handed to an International Olympic Committee member.

Regulation, drama, slow-mo movements at ridiculous heights: only one aspect was missing. "The torch was not lit in orbit, as combustion is impossible in outer space," Olympic.org reminds us. (Also, "safety regulations strictly prohibit flames on board the space station.") Put your lighter away, trigger-happy Canadian official.

Compared to all these adventures, this year's torch journey doesn't seem so out of place. The torch has made it through terrible eras and great pranks, goofy technology, water, and the vacuum of space. It will almost certainly make it to Rio tonight—regardless of how many people don't want it to. That's the indomitable human spirit for you.

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