Where it Originated
The Olympics. An event where athletes of all types gather together to prove who, among the best, is truly the best. The Olympics we know today are inspired by the ancient Olympic Games that were held every four years in Olympia, Greece. However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held and governed the first official Olympics event in Athens in 1896. Since then, many changes have occurred including the addition of the Winter Olympics (because holding ice hockey and figure skating events in the summer was a logistical nightmare), the creation of the Paralympics (to promote the rehabilitation of soldiers after World War II), and the Youth Olympic Games.
Through it all though, one thing stands unchanged – The Olympic Flame.
Greek mythology considers fire and flame divine, representing the fire Prometheus stole from Zeus to give to humanity and influence civilization. As a result, it’s been incorporated into the Olympics since ancient times and is one of the (if not THE) biggest symbols of the modern day Olympics. With that much fanfare and celebration over some flames, it’s important to acknowledge the torch that carries them too. With that said, this month’s How It’s Made article gives credit where credit is due.
How It’s Made – The Olympic Torch
Every Olympiad, experts design and craft the torch to represent the host country and that year’s Olympic theme. Aesthetics have changed a lot from past games but, for the most part, the torches are very much made the same year after year. The torch base is made of aluminum with a small fuel tank inside, which releases pressurized fuel.
In the early years, torches were fueled by gun powder or olive oil. Other torches were fueled with a mixture of formaldehyde and ammonia. In 1956, the torches were fueled with a dangerous mixture of aluminum and magnesium, which fell from the final torch and seared the runner’s arm. This event among other safety concerns changed the way designers thought about the torch.
As a result, Olympic torches have been using liquidized fuel since 1972. This fuel moves through a valve with thousands of tiny openings and, by doing so, drops the pressure of the liquid.
When this happens, it turns the liquid into gas and it lights the flame. The fuel tank continues to supply liquid fuel through the valve at a consistent rate after the flame is lit, thus constantly providing gas to ensure the flame stays lit and torch carriers can “kiss” the flame to other torch carriers.
Other fuels used include propylene in the 1996 Olympics and a mixture of propane and butane (2000), a much lighter in weight and more environmentally friendly fuel source.
Depending upon the elements the torch will encounter on its journey, other mechanisms within the torch include a two-flame configuration- flares and various other aerodynamic design features.
It all sounds pretty simple but, in reality, it can take as long as two years to design and build a torch. Once built, the prototype torch is put through very demanding testing procedures to ensure it stays lit during its entire journey through wind, sleet, rain, snow, and/or sun. Once testing is completed, another 15,000 or so torches are made to fuel (pun intended) the very long Olympic Torch Relay.
If you’re interested in learning more about the relay, this History Channel write-up on the Olympic Torch relay’s surprising origins is a great source!
About the Author
Kim Mooney, Technical Manager & Coach