How the Olympic Torch Works

2014 Olympic torch
The 2014 Olympic torch lighting the Olympic Flame. Getty Images/Stringer/Getty Images Sport

Quite a lot of development and technology goes into the flame for the Olympic Torch. Here's a look at how the Olympic Torch works and the fuel used to produce the flame.

Origin of the Olympic Torch

The Olympic Torch represents Prometheus' theft of fire from Zeus. In the original Greek Olympic Games, a fire --- the Olympic Flame - was kept burning during the duration of the games. The tradition of the Olympic Flame made its way into the international games in the 1928 summer Olympic Games in Amsterdam. There was no torch relay in the original games, taking the flame from its source to wherever the games were being held. The Olympic Torch is a relatively new invention, introduced by Carl Diem at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

Design of the Olympic Torch

While the original Olympic Torch was simply an Olympic Flame that was kept burning throughout the original Greek Olympic Games, the modern torch is a sophisticated device that is used in a relay. The design of the torch changes and is customized for every set of Olympic Games. Recent torches use a double burner, with an outer bright flame and a small inner blue flame. The inner flame is protected such that if the torch is blown out by wind or rain, the small flame acts as a sort of pilot light, re-igniting the torch. A typical torch carries fuel sufficient to burn for about 15 minutes. Recent games have utilized a burning mixture of butane and polypropylene or propane.

Fun Olympic Torch Facts

  • Some early torches were fueled by olive oil.
  • The runners in the 1956 torch relay carried a flaming block of hexamine and naphthalene, but a more dazzling display was desired for the entry into the Melbourne Olympic Stadium. The runner, Ron Clarke, carried a torch burning a mixture of magnesium and aluminum flakes (think thermite reaction or a giant sparkler). The torch dripped clumps of flaming metal onto the track and burned its carrier.
  • The 2000 Olympic Games featured an underwater flare for a torch so that a diver could bear the flame across the Great Barrier Reef to the Sydney Games in Australia.
  • Multiple torches are made for each set of Olympic Games. There were 22 torches for the 1952 games in Helsinki, 6,200 for the 1980 games in Moscow and 8,000 for the 2012 London Games.

What Happens When the Torch Goes Out?

Modern Olympic Torches are less likely to go out than their predecessors. The type of torch used for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games has been tested and found to function at temperatures from -5°C to 40°C, in rain and snow, at 95% humidity, and with wind gusts of up to 50 mph. The torch will remain lit when dropped from a height of at least three meters (the test height). Even so, the flame can go out! When this happens, the inner flame acts as a pilot light to reignite the fuel of the flame. Unless the torch is very wet, the flame should reignite easily.