How Is the Olympic Flame Lit—and How Does It Stay Lit?
This evening, billions of people from around the world will tune in to watch the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. From performances by famous Brazilian musicians to the scrapped plans for Gisele Bündchen to be mugged in the name of art, it’s sure to have a different tone from the 2012 opening ceremonies in London. One thing that will remain constant: the traditional lighting of the Olympic cauldron.
The Olympic torch is reignited months before each new cycle of the games in a ceremony in Ancient Olympia, Greece. An actress playing an ancient priestess uses a parabolic mirror and the sun’s rays to set the torch relay in motion (if it's cloudy on the day of the ceremony, they light the torch from a second torch that was lit in the parabolic mirror on a sunny rehearsal day).
Once the flame is reestablished, it’s up to thousands of torchbearers to ensure that it makes it to its final destination safely; this year, 12,000 torchbearers have carried the torch more than 12,000 miles by road and 10,000 by air to make it to Rio de Janeiro. The path from Greece to the Games can even take the torch underwater, as it did at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, when a special underwater flare was employed to send the flame over the Great Barrier Reef.
The intention is for the flame to stay continuously lit throughout its entire journey, but there's almost always difficulty at some point along the route. One journalist reported that the flame was extinguished at least 44 times on its way to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the Rio relay has already seen its fair share of mishaps as well. On June 20, a jaguar that was part of the relay was shot and killed after it escaped from its handlers and reportedly lunged at a soldier; several days later, a Brazilian man attempted to douse the torch as it passed through his town. Just last week, protestors actually shut down the torch procession in Angra dos Reis, Brazil, stealing it from the torchbearer and extinguishing the flame.
Sometimes it's Mother Nature who extinguishes the torch. In 2013, it had to pass through what amounted to a wind tunnel at the Kremlin, where it fell victim to a particularly persistent gust of wind. It was quickly relit by a security agent’s Zippo. (That’s a no-no, by the way. There’s protocol for relighting the flame, and it involves a backup torch also lit from the original source in Athens—not a random lighter.)
When the flame does go out for good, it will be intentional; the snuffing ceremony on the final day of the Games, August 21, will put the flame to rest until the relay for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics begins in 2017.