The Science of the Olympic Flame; Ancient Style Meets Modern Technology

For all the recent scan­dal and the trau­ma of past Games, the Olympics remain a pageant of grandeur and glo­ry, and there is no greater sym­bol of its ideals than the Olympic Flame. The video above, from the Ontario Sci­ence Cen­tre, explains the evolv­ing tech­nol­o­gy that keeps the flame burn­ing from its light­ing to the clos­ing cer­e­monies. It’s a pret­ty cool sto­ry, set to a bom­bas­tic sound­track wor­thy of its sub­ject and car­ried by an ani­mat­ed run­ner who just peeled him­self off of an ancient Athen­ian vase.

Intro­duced in the 1928 Sum­mer Olympics in Ams­ter­dam, the flame revives a sym­bol from antiq­ui­ty, com­mem­o­rat­ing Prometheus’s audac­i­ty and remind­ing war­ring city states to put aside hos­til­i­ties for as long as it burned. In the mod­ern Olympics, between the light­ing and the open­ing cer­e­monies, the flame, in its styl­ized torch, makes a pil­grim­age to the host city via relay, a prac­tice that began with the 1936 games in Berlin. This year’s relay start­ed on May 19th in Land’s End in Corn­wall and ends this Fri­day, the 27th at the open­ing cer­e­mo­ny in Lon­don. The torch will have trav­eled through 1,000 places in the UK, cov­ered a total of 8,000 miles (and pass­ing through 8,000 hands), mov­ing over land, air, and water, with­out once hav­ing to be relit.

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.