The ignition and transportation of the Olympic torch is an involved bit of pomp and circumstance. Symbolizing the link between the ancient and modern Olympic games, the flame that will light the cauldron in the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Friday, Aug. 5, was ignited back in April at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, by an actress dressed as the high priestess of the Vestal Virgins. She said a prayer to Apollo and Zeus and kindled the flame using the rays of the sun concentrated in a parabolic mirror. The Vestal Virgins danced, speeches were given, one of the virgins released a dove, and the high priestess lit the torch of the first runner in the relay, world champion Greek gymnast Lefteris Petrounias.
Since that elaborate day, the Olympic flame has made its way by airplane across the ocean in a lamp, and by the time the flame reaches its opening-ceremonies cauldron in Rio de Janeiro, it will have been carried by 12,000 different runners. It will burn there until it's extinguished on Sunday, Aug. 21, during the closing ceremonies.
The passing of the Olympic flame from its birthplace in Greece to wherever the games are being held in a given year is obviously a big deal, and involves serious logistics. The torches carried by the runners are specially made to burn with a large, visible yellow flame that's easily photographed, as well as a smaller, hotter white flame that's not as easily blown out. But sometimes life doesn't go the way we plan — what happens if the flame does accidentally go out?
The short answer is, despite the torch's 24/7 security detail, it's not uncommon for the flame to be extinguished due to weather, torch malfunction, or humans doing human stuff (ie. Protesting or just goofing around). However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) keeps multiple copies of the fire burning and has a protocol in place for relighting an extinguished torch.
"I experienced that problem myself in the torch relay for the 2004 Athens Games," says Tony Bijkerk, secretary general of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH). "During my 400 meters run, I twice passed a crossing where the wind came hard from the side. It blew out the flame, so I had to stop to receive a replacement torch from the car behind me carrying the mother lamp. The second time, I got the original torch back, lit again from the mother lamp in the car."
According to Bijkerk, the mother lamp kept in the car that trails the relay runners is much like a mining lamp used in the old coal mines.
With its own security retinue, a message of peace and cooperation, and a mother lamp never far away, what could go wrong?
Oh, lots. This summer alone two unsuccessful attempts have been made by bystanders to extinguish the torch, one with a bucket of water and the other with a fire extinguisher. Back in 2008, the torch relay through Paris for the Beijing Olympic Games was protested due to Communist China's treatment of Tibet, and the torch was extinguished and relit no fewer than three times, although French officials claim it was more like five.
The 1976 Montreal Summer Games was one of most disorganized in Olympics history — due to a construction strike, the roof of the Olympic Stadium wasn't finished by the time the games began. When the flame in the cauldron was doused by a rainstorm and a backup nowhere to be found, a well-meaning security guard relit it with his lighter. When the IOC found out about this, they doused the tainted flame and relit it with the mother lamp.
Until the cauldron is lit in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, you can follow the progress of the torch relay here.