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Curious About the Olympic Torch?

written by: Lynne Ringle • edited by: Tania Cowling • updated: 9/11/2012

The flame is a symbol of positive values that the modern Olympics have taken from the games of Ancient Greece. The Olympic torch has the important role of carrying the flame.

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    The Olympic torch is one of the most important symbols of the Olympic games. The modern Olympics were first held in Athens in April 1896, reviving a competition that began in Ancient Greece but was banned 1,500 years earlier by Roman Emperor Theodosius I. The modern Olympics follow the traditions of ancient times by giving fire an important role in the games. The Olympic torch is responsible for carrying the flame to a special cauldron in the host city.

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    Key Facts

    Olympic torch bearers light the cauldron at the games in Seoul, Korea 1988: Courtesy of the Department of Defense 

    • A new torch is designed for every Olympics.
    • Several torches are made because each torchbearer is given his or her own torch. It is the flame that is passed from runner to runner, not the torch.
    • As it was in Ancient Greece, the Mother Flame that is used to light the torch is lit by the sun in Olympia.
    • The Mother Flame is lit in a special ceremony, using a parabolic mirror to reflect the sun's rays and create a fire. The flame is considered to be more pure because it is lit by the sun.

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    Importance of Fire in the Olympics

    The Olympic torch incorporates both an important symbol and an important tradition for the Olympic games. The flame is symbolic of the positive values that man has typically associated with fire. The ancient Greeks believed that fire was a gift from Prometheus, who stole it from the gods and gave it to man. This gave fire a revered and respected role in Greek history.

    In the Ancient Olympic Games in Olympia, a flame burned throughout the games at an altar to the goddess Hestia, whose Roman name was Vesta. Romans believed that Vestals were guardians of fire.

    In modern times, a similar tradition has been observed in every Olympics since 1928, when a flame is lit in the opening ceremony and remains lit until the closing ceremony.

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    The Torch Relay

    Runner bringing the Olympic flame into the Reich Sports Field in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin: Courtesy of Stanford University 

    The Olympic flame is carried from Olympia to the host city for the by the torch relay.

    Being selected as a torchbearer is a special honor. The arrival of the flame in each town on the relay route signifies the beginning of the games, as well as a message of friendship and peace.

    Here are some interesting facts about the Olympic torch relay:

    • The Olympic torch relay was first held for the games in Berlin, Germany in 1936.
    • The first winter Olympics to have a torch relay was the 1952 games in Oslo, Norway.
    • The relay for the summer has always started in Olympia, Greece.
    • The winter relay began in Norway and Italy until the 1964 Innsbruck Games, when winter games relay also started in Olympia.
    • The relay begins many months before the Olympics. This gives time for the torch to pass through various cities and countries.
    • If the torch has to be transported on an airplane, it is placed in a special security lamp that operates like a miner's lamp.
    • The flame is kept in a special cauldron at night to ensure that it stays lit.
    • The Olympic torch is protected by strong security along the relay route due to the importance of keeping the flame lit.
    • The final leg of the torch relay is a lap around the stadium that hosts the Opening Ceremony. The lap ends with the torchbearer, who is typically a famous national or international celebrity or athlete, lighting the cauldron to signify that the Olympics have officially begun.
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    Flame of History

    The Olympics are as much about peace and friendship between the competing nations as they are about the results of the competition. The flame is a positive symbol, dating back to Ancient Greece, and the torch relay represent friendship and peace, making the torch one of the most important symbols of the Olympic games.

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    Image Credits:

    1. Flickr: Department of Defense:

    2. Stanford University:


    1. Seattle PI: Flame Facts: A Brief History of the Olympic Torch

    2. The Olympic Museum: The Olympic Flame and Torch Museum:

    3. The Olympic Museum: The Olympic Symbols: