A BBC News item, the other day, caught my attention which said Sochi Olympic torch reaches space station. A Soyuz rocket carrying the unlit torch and two Russian cosmonauts blasted off into space and then docked with the International space Station. As the space station orbits around the Earth, in a symbolic journey, that torch would also go round the earth. On Saturday, Russian cosmonauts would take the torch out on its first ever historic spacewalk. The Russians want to make this a spectacular event prior to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Russia next year. No big deal. What is big deal is the Olympic flame itself. The charisma of the Olympic flame is unparalleled.
Background to lighting of the flame
At Olympia in Greece that torch is lit in an elaborate ceremony performed by 11 women representing the vestal virgins who worship at the temple of Hera, wife of the Greek god, Zeus. In ancient times when the games were held in Olympia the flame was lit and stayed lit for the full duration of the games. It represented the “endeavor for protection and struggle for victory”. In modern times, the relay of the torch from Olympia to the host country began in 1936 with the Berlin Olympics. The torch is ignited, many months before the scheduled Olympiad, by the rays of the sun concentrated on to it by a parabolic mirror. It travels through Greece in a short relay and then is relayed across continents by land, air and sea till it reaches the host country. Every person, who handles the torch in the relay, is hand-picked and given the honor because of being someone special, someone unique in his/her country and has done their country proud with something. The last bearer is a unique hero of his country. It is considered a singular honor to hold the Olympic torch in one’s hand. Once the cauldron is lit it symbolizes the start of the games.
The recent lighting of the flame
29 Sep 2013. It is parched and dry at the temple of Hera in ancient Olympia, Greece. There is a bright sunlight and the crowd starts coming to the venue. The crowd starts moving to the site where the lighting of the Torch ceremony is going to take place. Surrounded by lush greenery, in the centre, is a broad dry patch like a broad cricket pitch. The booming voice of the anchor comes over the public address system requesting all spectators to take their seats as the ceremony was about to begin. As the ceremony begins we see the officials marching in to the ceremony area. It is now time for the VIPs to come and take their seats. The eyes pan the area seeing the ancient ruins of Hera’s temple. In the centre is a parabolic dish which is going to harness the rays of the sun. Once the speeches are over, the crowd waits with bated breath for the ceremony to begin. Five men and three women all dressed in ancient Greek costumes stand waiting for their cue. Now a lonely lady, in white, enters the temple area. The group of five men and three women now move forward. The women enter the temple ruins and the men go towards the edges of the temple, turn around and stand. The men now go through some calisthenic movements and then freeze into a reverent position which symbolizes them to be holding flags. The 11 “Vestal Virgins”, in their white traditional Greek clothing come towards the parabolic dish. The Vestal Virgins stand in a semicircular curve in front of the dish. The “Chief Priestess” now approaches the dish, turns towards the Sun and pays obeisance to it. Very solemnly, she kneels in front of the dish and picks up the torch and as she puts it in front of the centre of the parabolic dish, flames light it up. Standing up again she holds the lit torch aloft. The flame is bright orange in color blowing gently in the breeze. The priestess, now, lights an urn with the torch. The women move forward and surround the lady carrying the urn. The whole procession moves forward with a small child dressed in traditional Grecian clothes, leading the parade. They stop near a tree and the child picks up an olive branch and the procession moves forward again. The whole procession, now, moves away from site as they take the flame around the ruins of the temple. The attention of the spectators is now directed towards the men standing on the rampant of the temple and, they, in a pantomime show the various Olympic activities, like discus throwing, javelin throw, shot put and wrestling. It is now time to witness the beautiful Dance of the Priestesses, performed by a different group of women clad in white. As the dance finishes, the lady with the flaming urn comes forward. The child and her escort also come forward. The urn is placed on a stone slab and the Chief Priestess invokes the gods. The priestess, kneels, picks up another torch and lights it from the flame of the urn and stands up holding the flame aloft in her right hand. The child comes forward and hands over the olive branch to her which she also holds aloft in her left hand. The first runner of the relay, Greek Alpine skier, Giannis Antoniou, comes forward with an unlit torch in his hand and kneels, on one knee, in front of the Priestess. She lights his torch and also gives him the olive branch. The runner turns towards the crowd and holds aloft the Olympic flame and the olive branch. Another girl comes forward carrying a white dove. She kneels down and throws the white dove into the air and watches it as it flies away. The complete ceremonial group now move away and the first runner runs with the torch. The very first leg of the torch’s journey to the host country has just begun.
The spectacular lighting of the cauldron
It is a huge event when the torch reaches the country. It then travels through an elaborate route by which the country’s populace gets to see the Olympic torch. The route is so worked out that the torch reaches the stadium on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympiad. The flame enters the stadium exchanging hands of various runners and finally the last person ignites the cauldron with this torch. Every country that has hosted the Olympiad has thought up of very unique and spectacular ways of lighting the cauldron. In my opinion, the most spectacular way that the cauldron was lit was in the Barcelona Olympics. In 1992, Antonio Rebollo, an archer with a disability, shot a burning arrow over the cauldron which ignited the gas that rose from the bowl. There have been many spectacular, unique and innovative ways in which the cauldron has been lit but, by far, that was a memorable lighting of the cauldron.
The charisma that is the Olympic Flame
Undoubtedly, every event in the Olympiad is a spectacular one. Each event, be it the competitions or the different ceremonies has its own individual flavor and charisma. The Olympic flame has its own standing in the arena.