How Olympic Torches Work

The Tibetan flag flies as the 2008 Beijing Olympics torch is carried by respected sports personalities and celebrities from Wembley Stadium to the grand finale at the O2 Dome, April 6, 2008 in London, England. See more Olympics pictures.
Warren Little/Getty Images

Every two years, people around the world wait in anticipation as a torch-bearing runner enters the Olympic arena and lights the cauldron. The symboli­c lighting of the Olympic flame marks the beginning of another historic Olympic Games.

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The opening ceremony is the end of a long journey for the Olympic torch. By the time it arrives in the stadium, it has traveled thousands of miles. It may have crossed oceans and deserts and traversed mountains. It may have been carried on planes, trains, bicycles, boats, and even dog sleds. And it will have passed through the hands of thousands of different people around the globe.

This article chronicles the history of the Olympic torch, reveals how it is designed to stay lit through even the harshest weather conditions, and follows its path from Olympia, Greece, to the Olympic Games.

History of the Torch

Photo courtesy Morguefile

Fire has always held great power for humans. It cooks our food, keeps us warm, and lights our way through the dark.

The ancient Greeks revered the power and fire. In Greek mythology, the god Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to humans. To celebrate the passing of fire from Prometheus to man, the Greeks would hold relay races. Athletes would pass a lit torch to one another until the winner reached the finish line.


The Greeks held their first Olympic Games in 776 B.C. The Games, held every four years at Olympia, honored Zeus and other Greek gods. The Olympics also marked the beginning of a period of peace for the often warring Greeks. At the start of the Games, runners called "heralds of peace" would travel throughout Greece, declaring a "sacred truce" to all wars between rival city-states. The truce would remain in place for the duration of the games, so that spectators could safely travel to the Olympics.

A constantly burning flame was a regular fixture throughout Greece. It usually graced the altars of the Greek gods. In Olympia, there was an altar dedicated to Hera, goddess of birth and marriage. At the start of the Olympic Games, the Greeks would ignite a cauldron of flames upon Hera's altar. They lit the flame using a hollow disc or mirror called a skaphia, which, much like the modern parabolic mirror, focused the sun's rays into a single point to light the flame. The flame would burn throughout the Games as a sign of purity, reason, and peace.

The Greeks stopped holding their Olympic Games after about a thousand years, and the torch relays and lighting of the flame also stopped. The Olympic Games did not reemerge until 1896, when the first modern Games were held in Athens. The torch relay took a bit longer to reemerge.

The Birth of the Modern Torch Relay

England cricket player Kevin Pietersen carries the Olympic Torch on April 6, 2008 in London, England.
Ian Walton/Getty Images

The flame was reintroduced to the Olympics at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. A cauldron was lit, but there was no torch relay.

The first Olympic torch relay was at the 1936 Berlin Summer Games. Carl Diem, a German history professor and Secretary General of the Organizing Committee of the Games introduced the relay as a way of reconnecting the modern Olympics with the Games' historical roots. The flame was lit in Olympia, Greece, just as it had been centuries before. Then it was carried to Berlin, Germany, for the start of the Olympics.


The torch relay was not introduced to the Winter Olympics until the 1952 Games. It was lit that year not in Olympia, Greece, but in Norway, which was chosen because it was the birthplace of skiing. But since the 1964 Olympics at Innsbruck, Austria, every Olympic Games -- Winter and Summer -- has begun with a torch-lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, followed by a torch relay to the Olympic stadium.

Next, we'll look at how designers and engineers create an Olympic torch.

Designing an Olympic Torch

The 2006 Torino Olympic Torch
Photo courtesy Copyright © 2005 Torino 2006 ®

The torch begins its journey long before the Olympic games commence. It starts out as an idea in the mind of a designer or group of designers. Several design teams submit proposals to the Olympic Committee for the opportunity to create and build the torch. The team that wins the assignment will design a torch that is both aesthetically pleasing and functional. A technical or engineering team handles the functional aspect, making sure that the torch can not only stay lit across the distance, but also make it through sometimes grueling conditions.

The first torch used in the modern Olympics (the 1936 Berlin Games) was made of a thin steel rod topped with a circular piece from which the flame rose. It was inscribed with a dedication to the runners.


The look of the modern Olympic torch originated with John Hench, a Disney artist who designed the torch for the 1960 Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California. His design provided the basis for all future torches. Since then, designers have tried to create a torch that represents the host country and the theme for that Olympic Games.

A torch can take a year or two to design and build. And once the torch has been built, it must be tested rigorously in all kinds of weather conditions. The torch must then be replicated ... and replicated. It's not just one torch making the journey to the Olympic stadium; it's thousands. Anywhere from 10,000 to 15,000 torches are constructed to accommodate the thousands of runners who carry them through each leg of the Olympic relay. Each runner has the opportunity to purchase his torch at the end of his leg of the relay.

Torchbearer for the 2000 Sydney Games
Photo courtesy

Although torch design and construction vary from year to year, the torch must always contain the same basic elements:

  • fuel to create the flame
  • a fuel delivery system to get the flame out of the top of the torch
  • an aerodynamic design that is both lightweight and safe for the runner to carry
Top view of 2002 Salt Lake City torch
Photo courtesy Georgia Institute of Technology Photo by Sue Clites

Let's take a look at the fuel that is used to create the flame.

The Flame

A torchbearer carries the flame during the 2004 Athens Olympic Torch Relay.
Photo courtesy

The torch must stay lit the entire length of its journey. It must survive wind, rain, sleet, snow, and a variety of climates (desert, mountain, ocean). The torch must also:

  • Be light enough so that it is comfortable for each runner to carry (usually between 3 and 4 pounds or 1.4 and 1.8 kg)
  • Protect the runner from the heat of the flame (as well as from hot debris falling from the flame)
  • Carry enough fuel to stay lit for the entire leg (and a bit extra, in case the leg takes longer than anticipated)
  • Have a bright flame that is visible even on a sunny day

For fuel, early torches burned everything from gunpowder to olive oil. Some torches used a mixture of hexamine (a mixture of formaldehyde and ammonia) and naphthalene (the hydrogen- and carbon-based substance in mothballs) with an igniting liquid. These substances weren't always the most efficient fuel sources, and they were sometimes dangerous. In the 1956 games, the final torch in the relay was lit by magnesium and aluminum, burning chunks of which fell from the torch and seared the runner's arms.


The first liquid fuels were introduced at the 1972 Munich games. Torches since that time have carried liquid fuels -- they are stored under pressure as a liquid, but burn as a gas to produce a flame. Liquid fuel is safe for the runner and can be stored in a lightweight canister.

In the next section, we'll look at how the torch is constructed.

Torch Construction

To get an idea of how a torch is constructed, let's look at two recent Olympic torches.

Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Operations Manager Loren J. Shriver carried the 1996 torch to the top of a launch pad.
Photo courtesy NASA

This is the torch designed for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics. Its aluminum base houses a small fuel tank. As fuel rises through the handle, it is pushed through a brass valve with thousands of tiny openings. As the fuel squeezes through the small openings, it builds pressure. Once it makes it through the openings, the pressure drops, and the liquid fuel turns into a gas for burning. The tiny holes maintain a high pressure in the fuel to keep the flame going through harsh conditions.


The 1996 torch was fueled by propylene, which produced a bright flame. But because propylene contains a high level of carbon, it also produced a lot of smoke -- not a plus for the environment.

In 2000, the creators of the Sydney, Australia, Olympic torch came up with a more lightweight, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly design. To fuel their torch, they decided on a mixture of 35 percent propane (the gas used to heat home stoves and barbecue grills) and 65 percent butane (cigarette lighter fuel), which ignites a strong flame without making a lot of smoke. Because the propane/butane mix can be stored as a liquid under relatively light pressure, it can be kept in a lightweight container. It then burns as a gas under normal atmospheric pressure.

The liquid fuel is stored in an aluminum canister located about halfway up the torch. It flows up to the top of a torch through a pipe. Before leaving the pipe, the liquid fuel is forced through a tiny hole. Once it moves through the hole, there is a pressure drop, causing the liquid to turn into a gas for burning. The torch moves the liquid fuel at a consistent rate to the burner, so the flame always burns with the same intensity. The torch can stay lit for about 15 minutes.

The engineers behind both the 1996 and 2000 torches included a burner system that utilized a double flame, helping it to stay lit even in erratic winds. The external flame burns slowly and at a lower temperature than the internal flame. This flame is big and bright orange, so it can be seen clearly; but it is unstable in winds. The interior flame burns hotter, producing a blue flame that is small but very stable, because its internal location protects it from the wind. It acts like a pilot light, able to relight the external flame should it go out.

For the 2000 torch's underwater journey across the Great Barrier Reef, a specially designed flare was fitted inside the torch to keep the flame burning both in the water and on land.

Future torch design will continue to evolve as technology improves and new fuels provide even greater safety and reliability.

Now let's see how the torch is lit to start the Olympic relay.

The Lighting of the Olympic Torch

Actress Thaleia Prokopiou ignites the Olympic Flame with the use of a parabolic mirror during a Torch Lighting practice session outside the Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia, 2004.
Photo courtesy ANA/Orestis Panagiotpu

The Olympic torch is lit several months before the start of the actual games. The flame begins its journey at the site of the original Olympic Games -- Olympia, Greece. It is lit, just as it was in ancient times, at the Temple of Hera.

An actress dressed as a ceremonial priestess, in the robes of the ancient Greeks, lights the torch via the same technique used in the original Games. She uses a parabolic mirror to focus light rays from the sun. The parabolic mirror has a curved shape. When it is held toward the sun, the curvature focuses the rays to a single point. The energy from the sun creates a great deal of heat. The priestess holds a torch in the center of the parabolic mirror, and the heat ignites the fuel in the torch, sparking a flame.


If the sun is not shining on the day of the lighting ceremony, the priestess can light the torch with a flame that was lit on a sunny day before the ceremony.

The flame is carried in a fire pot to an altar in the ancient Olympic stadium, where it is used to light the first runner's torch. For the Winter Games, the relay actually begins at the monument to Pierre de Coubertin (the man who founded the modern Olympic games in 1896), which is located near the stadium.

Then, the relay begins.

The last Torchbearer, Greece's Olympic silver medalist Chrysopygi Devertzi holds the Olympic torch at the Panathinaikon stadium during the handover ceremony to China on March 30, 2008.
Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

The Torch Relay

During the 2006 Torino Olympic Torch Relay, a torchbearer passes the flame to a fellow torchbearer.
Photo courtesy Copyright © 2005 Torino 2006 ®

The Olympic Torch Relay begins with the torch lighting in Olympia, Greece. From there, the journey to the host city varies from year to year. The Olympic Games Organizing Committee (OCOG) determines the route, as well as the theme, modes of transportation for the torch, and the stops that it will take along its way to the Opening Ceremony.

The torch is generally carried from one country to another on a plane. Once it arrives in a city, it usually spends one day being carried from torchbearer to torchbearer on foot. It may also be ferried from place to place by car, boat, bicycle, motorcycle, dog sled, horse, or virtually any other type of conveyance.


On certain legs of the relay, the torch must be housed in a special container. For a trip across the Great Barrier Reef before the 2000 Olympic Games, a special torch was designed to burn underwater. On airplanes, where open flames are not allowed, the flame is typically stored in an enclosed lamp, much like a Miner's lamp. At night, it is kept in a special cauldron until the relay begins once again the following day.

Sam Shelton, who created both the 1996 Atlanta torch and the 2002 Salt Lake City torch, examines the Olympic Cauldron that holds the flame at various points during the relay.
Photo courtesy Georgia Institute of Technology Photo by Stanley Leary

As in any relay race, each runner carries the torch for only one short leg of its trip As a runner completes a leg, he lights the torch of the next person in the relay.

Torchbearer Stephanie Stockman, an employee in the NASA Laboratory for Terrestrial Physics in Maryland, passes the flame to the next runner.
Photo courtesy NASA

It is considered a great privilege to be chosen as a torchbearer. Athletes, actors, musicians, sports figures, and politicians have all carried the flame. In 1996, boxing legend Muhammed Ali lit the Olympic cauldron to mark the start of the Games in Atlanta. But the brunt of the running is done by average citizens all around the world.

A torchbearer in the 2004 Olympic Torch Relay lights her torch from the cauldron to begin another day of the relay in Greece.
Photo courtesy ANA

Almost anyone can carry a torch, provided that he is at least 14 years old and is able to carry it for at least 400 meters (437 yards). Handicapped people can be (and have been) torchbearers -- they can carry the torch while riding in a wheelchair. The torchbearers are chosen by the Olympic sponsors and organizers, usually because they have made a significant contribution to their community and because they personify the theme of that particular Olympics. The Olympic sponsors (for example, Coca-Cola) also get to choose several torchbearers from within their organizations.

U.S. President George W. Bush speaks during the Olympic Torch Relay Ceremony at the White House. He announced two torchbearers, Liz Howell and Eric Jones, both of whom were profoundly affected by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Photo courtesy

Each torchbearer is accompanied by a caravan with security personnel, a medical team, the media, and extra torches in case the torch the runner is carrying goes out.

At the end of the relay, the last torchbearer enters the Olympic stadium in the host city. The identity of that torchbearer is usually kept secret until the last moment. The final torchbearer is usually an Olympic athlete, sports figure, or an individual who has made a very special contribution to society. That individual runs around the stadium track once, then lights the Olympic cauldron, signaling the official start of the Olympic games.

Opening Ceremony of 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney
Photo courtesy

When the competition ends about two weeks later, the flame is extinguished at the Closing Ceremony, marking the end of the Games.

To find out more about the Olympics, the torch, and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

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  • [url='}Journey of the Olympic Flame[/url'], by Gayle Petty
  • The Naked Olympics: The True Story of the Ancient Games, by Tony Perrottet
  • The Olympic Glow, by Barbara Birenbaum and Pat Sapp
  • Olympic Spirit: 100 Years of the Games by Susan Wells
  • Share the Flame: The Official Retrospective of the Olympic Torch Relay by Alan Hobson and Elaine Jones