Olympic Torch in Need of a Light

The surprising history of the torch relay took a new turn. It involved a cigarette lighter.

Prince Albert II of Monaco (R) and Russian tennis team coach Shamil Tarpischev (L) hold their torches during the torch relay race of the Olympic flame in Moscow, Russia.

Well, this probably hasn't happened before: The Olympic torch, which arrived in Moscow from Greece this week, blew out—and was relit by a plainclothes officer's cigarette lighter.

And so the relay will go on, with the torch ending up in the host town of Sochi for the 2014 Winter Games, which begin on February 7.

But the torch relay itself is not an ancient or original Olympic tradition. Although nude torch races were run on other occasions—vase paintings from the sixth century B.C. show unclad athletes handing off torches—the modern-day relay was invented by Carl Diem, head of Berlin's 1936 games.

Diem was inspired by a flaming cauldron that made its debut at the 1928 Dutch Olympic stadium, and by a commemorative medal from those games that showed two athletes holding a torch. "A light bulb went on in his head," says Robert Barney, founding director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at the University of Western Ontario.

"The funny part of it," Barney adds, "was that the flame was lit every day, burned during the day, but did not burn during the night—unless there was a photo op."

Traveling Torch

In the years since 1936 the torch has been lit by the rays of the sun in Olympia, Greece, then carried by various means to the site of the games.

"The flame has been [contained in a bottle and] conveyed by airplane, conveyed by boat," says Barney, who recalls the flame's journey across Australia for the 2000 Summer Games, including a trip to the beach where a boat in a flotilla took it aboard, sailed for a mile to another beach, then landed and sent the flame on its way to the Olympic stadium.

Over the years the torch relay has become a mega-event in its own right. "Anywhere from 10 to 30 times as many people watch the passage of the Olympic flame as will ever see an Olympic sports event [in person]," says John MacAloon, a professor of social sciences at the University of Chicago. "It's free, it's unticketed, it's open to anyone. You just have to go to where the torch is passing."

And even though most people will never win a medal, apparently all you need is a cigarette lighter to make Olympic history.