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A photo of the torch on Mount Elbrus.

Mountain climber Karina Mezova led the Olympic torch relay over Mount Elbus—the highest point in Europe—on Saturday, February 1.

PHOTOGRAPH BY KONSTANTIN DIKOVSKY, OLYMPICTORCH2014.COM/AP

Cathy Newman

National Geographic News

Published February 7, 2014

The Sochi Olympic torch song—the traditional relay of the Olympic flame from Greece, site of the original games, to this year's venue in Russia—hit a few flat notes along the way.

The torch suffered multiple flame-outs, including one en route to the Kremlin ("I wouldn't devote any special attention to what happened," a Russian official on the organizing committee commented). A torchbearer accidentally set himself on fire (he wasn't injured). And a 73-year-old man died of a heart attack shortly after doing his leg of the relay.

In the course of its chest-thumping 40,000-mile journey, the torch was plunged to the bottom of the world's deepest lake, Siberia's Lake Baikal; ferried to the North Pole by a nuclear-powered icebreaker; carted up the highest peak in Russia, Mount Elbrus; and even took a short walk in space with two Russian cosmonauts (flame extinguished) at the International Space Station.

Photo of the Olympic torch relay.
PHOTOGRAPH BY SERGEI DOLYA, AP
For the first time in history, the Olympic torch reached the North Pole.

The torch—centerpiece of the opening ceremonies at 8 p.m. Sochi time on Friday—is aluminum with red detailing (a very Russian color), weighs nearly four pounds (1.8 kilograms), is about three feet high (92 centimeters), and is evocative of a phoenix feather (also very Russian—think Firebird fairy tales).

It's actually not the same torch that is passed from one torchbearer to another. It's the flame itself. For the Sochi Olympics, 14,000 torches were manufactured for 14,000 torchbearers.

Torch Tidbits

The Olympic torch relay is a relatively modern event. It made its debut at the infamous 1936 Summer Games held in Berlin and presided over by Adolf Hitler. It was a Nazi invention with overtones of propaganda, writes Max Fisher in the Atlantic, "typical of the Reich's love of flashy ceremonies and historical allusions to the old empires."

A photo of the torch relay in Berlin in 1936.
PHOTOGRAPH BY IMAGNO, GETTY
This early black-and-white photo shows the first Olympic torch relay in Berlin, Germany, 1936.

Today's ceremony has nothing to do with all of that, of course. "The runners who carry the Olympic flame carry a message of peace on their journey," the International Olympic Committee says in their fact sheet.

An illustration of an ancient relay race.
ILLUSTRATION BY ANN RONAN PICTURES, PRINT COLLECTOR/GETTY
This illustration of the ancient Olympic torch relay shows a runner protecting the flame with his shield.

Historically, the idea reaches back to the ancient Greek races known as lampadedromia, or "torch races." The torch symbolized fire, a divine element that was, according to myth, stolen from the gods and given to man by Prometheus.

Today's flame is lit using the sun's rays reflected off a parabolic mirror, which the IOC says "guarantees the purity of the flame."

A photo of the Olympic torch near the Great Barrier Reef.
PHOTOGRAPH BY STEVE NUTT, ALLSPORT/GETTY
Wendy Craig-Duncan, a marine biologist, carries the Sydney Olympic torch over the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, Australia.

Olympia, Greece, is the departure point for all torches, but after that anything goes—including travels by space capsule, plane, boat, horseback, canoe, bicycle, London Underground, and reindeer sleigh. The torches' adventures include:

  • An underwater visit to the Great Barrier Reef (Sydney, Australia, 2000)
  • A ride on the Concorde (Albertville, France, 1991)
  • A blessing by Pope Benedict XVI (Turin, Italy, 2006)
  • Being sent in coded impulses from a satellite in Greece to Canada, where a laser translated the code back into a flame (Montreal, Canada, 1976)

In addition to being arguably the premier emblem of the Olympics, the torch is highly collectible. The record price paid for a torch was €290,000 (nearly $400,000 U.S.) at an auction house in Paris, in 2011. That sterling silver and birchwood torch, used in the Helsinki Games in 1952, was one of only 22 made for that year's relay.

Are you in Sochi for the Olympics this year, or enjoying them at home? Share your photos with the Your Shot community using #SOCHI2014.

10 comments
Kathy Crone
Kathy Crone

I had never heard of or seen pictures of these past Olympic Torch Stories.  Thank you very much for this bit of historical significance. 

Eugene Whocares
Eugene Whocares

Am I the only person finding the comparison between 1936 and Sochi troubling? Russia has many problems, but they're nowhere near what was happening in Germany circa 1936.

"red detailing (a very Russian color)" -- really now? It's as much a Russian color as it is the US color. The Russian tri-color uses the same three colors as the US flag (red, white, blue).

keisha miller
keisha miller

wow...so what ur trying to say is that the Olympic torch is 78 yrs...that's a lot.....I luv the underwater pictures too.

Owen Busse
Owen Busse

Has the same torch been to all these games?

Eugene Whocares
Eugene Whocares

@keisha miller  Sorry about double posting... found the amount of Sochi torches produced, 14,000! Many, if not most, will probably end up on Ebay and in the hands of collectors worldwide.

Eugene Whocares
Eugene Whocares

@keisha miller  The torches are made by host country every time. It's not the same torch carried through all these years... Russia made hundreds (can't remember the exact number, but it's available) of these torches in the run-up for the games... actually, some (at least one) has already ended up on Ebay.

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