The opening ceremony for the Rio Olympics is just over 24 hours away, and even though the ceremony is all about aesthetics, throwing a party, art, history and theater, and not specificaly sports which is what we generally write all about, it’s something that the large majority of sports fans have grown to love and anticipate.
I'm not talking about the relay of the torch for days and/or months but instead, the literal time from whence the torch enters the stadium to the cauldron being lit, its arguably one of the best moments that happens in the Olympics, It’s a monumental moment, and I really can’t wait to see what Rio has in store for us, can they truly raise the bar, can they do their own unique thing, what will it be memorable for?
In order to properly judge this, I feel like GBS should take you through the full and very interesting history of the Olympic Torch. Why do we have war and conflict to thank for much of its elements and what it has become, and the ceremony and now surprise of lighting of the cauldron. So join me on this trip through history will you?
The Ancient Games
As per Wikipedia:
“In the time of the original games within the boundaries of Olympia, the altar of the sanctuary dedicated to the goddess Hera maintained a continuous flame. For the ancient Greeks, fire had divine connotations—it was thought to have been stolen from the gods by Prometheus. Therefore, fire was also present at many of the sanctuaries in Olympia, Greece.”
The Modern Olympics Begin - No Flames, Just Games
In the early years there was only a "Summer" Olympics (first Winter games were 1924) and during these early years ther flame tradition had not yet been rekindled.
Summer Games in black, Winter Games in blue.
1896 – Athens, Greece
1900 – Paris, France
1904 - St. Louis, United States
1908 – London, England
1912 – Stockholm, Sweden
1916 - Not held - World War I – Scheduled for Berlin, Germany
1920 – Antwerp, Belgium
1924 - Chamonix, France
1924 – Paris, France
1928 - St. Moritz, Switzerland
Interesting to note that the first ever Winter Olympic Games went to France along with Summer Games in the same year. In fact, this dual hosting repeats itself in 1932 with the USA getting both and in 1936 with Germany; It was also scheduled to dual host again that way in 1940 for Japan, but those games were never held (see below).
A Flame is Simply Lit as Commemoration
1928 – Amsterdam, Netherlands
In 1928, for the first time they decided to have a continuous flame buring during the games in Amsterdam, but it wasn’t the ceremony it is now of deciding who got to light it and making it a big deal as evidenced by this historical footnote: “An employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam lit the first Olympic flame in the Marathon Tower of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam.”
That’s right, the first modern Olympic flame was lit by... some guy... because it was his job…
It actually switched over to being famous people or famous athletes in time giving us the “who will light the cauldron?” suspense, but that’s what some of the lightings looked like through the early years of the tradition.
1932 - Lake Placid, N.Y., United States
1932 - Los Angeles, United States
1936 - Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
War Brings an Everlasting Tradition - The Torch Relay Begins From Olympia, Greece
In the previous 4 Olympics, the cauldron was simply lit up. Believe it or not, the tradition of lighting the torches from the lasting flame in Olympia, Greece and transporting it to the host site came from questionable intent. Why is that, who is to thank for the torch relay? The Nazis. In 1936 the Germans were hosting the Summer Games and hoped of showing their Aryan theory of superiority. Hitler specifically thought lighting the flame from Greece was a way to connect his Aryan Nation directly with the gods as that’s where the original flame came from, but the Nazis had and claimed a different agenda publicly, which though it may have been a facade of an intention, ended up sticking.
The Nazis knew they were getting closer to war, and in an attempt to sway public opinion, historians note they devised the relay as a way to make many countries feel included in their Olympic games by running the torch through their country on the way to Germany, increasing goodwill and gettingg a sense of togetherness. The Olympic flame was lit by a concave mirror in Olympia, Greece and transported over 3,187 kilometers by 3,331 runners in twelve days and eleven nights from Greece to Berlin, but not entirely as planned as there were protests in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia on the way.
So the Nazis gave us the torch relay, but when it comes to the actual lighting of the torch during the opening ceremony, its generally ho-hum, person runs up and lights that cauldron, cool mement but not quite the spectacle it has become.
1936 – Berlin, Germany
So while the new addition to the ceremony signifying the beginning of the games was nice, Jessie Owens kicked some ass, the Boys in the Boat kicked some ass and; Hitler then got mad and started a terrible war because Hilter was stupid, and thus...
1940 - Not held - World War II - Scheduled for Sapporo, Japan
1940 - Not held - World War II – Scheduled for Tokyo, Japan
1944 - Not held - World War II - Scheduled for Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
1944 - Not held - World War II – Scheduled for London, United Kingdom
So while the Nazis may have had political/tactical charged intentions behind the torch relay, their “bringing everyone together” via the torch relay remained even after World War II, even if that’s not what they actually intended. Through this time after war, the lighting of the cauldron was still 100% of the time an athlete running into the stadium, sometimes doing a lap of the track and then running up the steps to the top of one end of the stadium or a grandstand and lighting a standard cauldron wherever it was, usually within basic reach of height.
1948 - St. Moritz, Switzerland
1948 – London, England
1952 - Oslo, Norway
1952 – Helsinki, Finland
1956 - Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
1956 – Melbourne, Australia
Australia begins the "who will light the torch" build up, by not telling anyone who will light it, and surprising everyone with a 19-time World Record holder: ron clark.
1960 - Squaw Valley, California, United States
1960 – Rome, Italy
The First Winter Relay from Olympia, Greece
1964 - Innsbruck, Austria
While Innsbruck wasn't a change in the standard running up and lighting of a basic cauldron with a flame from Greece, it was just the first Winter Olympics to do so. Does that mean the previous Winter Olympics had no flame relay... why certainly not, the previous Winter Olympics had quite an interesting history:
“1952 and 1960 had torch relays starting in the fireplace of skiing pioneer Sondre Norheim, and one (1956) had a relay starting in Rome. The 1984 Winter Games were preceded by two torch relays, one from Norheim's fireplace, and the other from Olympia. The plan had been to mingle the two flames, lighting the cauldron with the combination, but this was disallowed; instead, only the Greek flame was used.”Yeah thats right, the flame came from some dude's fireplace!!! They put an end to that short lived tradition... Sadly the IOC had the video of this ceremony pulled from YouTube for some reason...
1964 – Tokyo, Japan
1968 - Grenoble, France
1968 - Mexico City, Mexico
Leave it up to the Mexicans to break a huge barrier as Enriqueta Basilio became the first woman to light the Olympic Cauldron
1972 - Sapporo, Japan
1972 – Munich, West Germany
Most anything people remember from Munich is the tragedy during these Olympic Games, but as you can see they started moving that cauldron up higher, starting to pave the way for a trend in putting that cauldron in sight of everyone and making it bigger.
1976 - Innsbruck, Austria
1976 – Montreal, Canada
The Canadians then give us dual cauldron lighters for the first time.
War and Conflict Ups the Gamesmanship of the Cauldrons and Lightings
So after World War II, the lighting of the cauldron runs largely on tradition, a torch relay from Greece where a surprise athlete from the host country does the final leg into the stadium and lights the basic cauldron. but much like the relay itself coming from conflict/politics, Leave it to conflict/politics again and the threat of war to once again push the way into torch/cauldron innovation. Going into the late 70s and early 80s the Cold War came upon the world. With it brought a giant pissing contest between the Soviet Union and the United States in the forms of the Space Race, technology advancement, espionage, communications and encryption advancements, economic advancements and failures, nuclear advancements and lastly of course… Olympic Cauldron lighting advancements.
The athletes themselves are already competing, but why stop there? We need to prove who is better, at everything. So in comes the perfect storm in 1980 at the height of the Cold War, with the U.S. hosting the Winter Games and the Soviet Union was hosting the Summer Games later that year. The U.S. had the standard lighting of the Cauldron... or so everyone thought. Charles Morgan Kerr, A doctor from Arizona who had been elected from all 52 torch bearers to run the final leg, he wasn't even an athlete, barely even important in retrospect.
He was able to walk up steps to light the cauldron, but it was no ordinary Olympic Cauldron, it was the first ever movable Cauldron in Olympic history, so after it was lit it raised high, like really, very freaking high, above everyone, higher than any flame ever before as if the U.S. was saying we have the best cauldron that has ever been done, highest ever, no one else could do this.
1980 – Lake Placid, United States
Cauldron lighter: Charles Morgan Kerr
The Surprise: Whoa look how high that cauldron goes!!
The Cauldron: ditto to above
The Lasting Memory: Literally the cauldron itself amidst all the athletes rising up above everyone. The cauldron was amazing and having it go up too, but the person lighting it is somewhat forgettable. By the days standards though it was amazing on cauldron alone.
So that pretty much set the stage, how could everyone, namely the Soviets, one up the Americans, and the modern history of things has been entertaining to say the least since. The U.S. went on to boycott the Soviet Summer Games but it didn't stop people from watching and seeing how the Soviet Union would reply to that?
1980 – Moscow, Soviet Union
Cauldron lighter: Sergey Belov (4-time olympic medalist in basketball, including gold in 1972)
The Surprise: How in the world is anyone going to get up to that cauldron, its behind all the people in the stadium!? Whoa where in the hell did that floating pathway come from!?
The Cauldron: Very tall and very large above the stadium
The Lasting Memory: Watching Belov run atop the crowd as the colors change in his wake then the magic pathway disappeared after he was done running on it.
1984 – Sarajevo, Yugoslavia
Cauldron lighter: Sanda Dubravcic (Yugoslavia's champion figure skater)
The Surprise: The torch arrives via cross country skiers
The Cauldron: Like Moscow and many before it, its tall and atop the end of the stadium seemingly out of reach
The Lasting Memory: Dubravcic running through the performers and up an incredibly steep incline that is actually disappearing behind her
1984 – Los Angeles, United States
Cauldron lighter: Rafer Johnson (Winner of the 1960 decathalon) also the first black person to light the caldron
The Surprise: How in the hell is anyone getting up there to light that thing!?
The Cauldron: It was standard, but it was atop the arch of the rose bowl but seemingly, inaccessible to anyone
The Lasting Memory: It went a little like this, 1) we see the cauldron but no one can get up there.. 2) ok that's a staircase, that gets him higher but it is a stairway to nothing... 3) whoa the whole Olympic symbol is on fire!
Imagine if they did it at night. Imagine what they could do if L.A. wins the 2024 games they are bidding on.
1988 – Calgary, Canada
Cauldron lighter: Robyn Perry (12 year old figure skater)
The Surprise: Leave it to Canada to go "eh, just lighting this thing is still good enough for us" Ok but really watch this whole opening ceremony, it just has Canada written all over it from mountee riding on horses to the base stadium floor.
The Cauldron: Big copper/bronze color and it kept rising up after lit
The Lasting Memory: Seeing the lit cauldron between the giant intersecting spires
1988 – Seoul, South Korea
Cauldron lighters: Track and field and dancing athletes Chung Sun-Man, Sohn Mi-Chung, and Kim Won-Tak
The Surprise: There is no way in hell anyone can get to that cauldron!
The Cauldron: read above, it was this incredibly tall stem maybe 20+ stories high
The Lasting Memory: Seeing the torch bearers get on the platform and be elevated up the entire stem so they could light the torch. Also hoping the birds would get off the cauldron so they don't get fried. And if that wasn't enough a perfectly timed flyby just as it was lit.
1992 – Albertville, France
Cauldron lighter: Michel Platini and François-Cyrille Grange (a footballer and a 9 year old who remains the youngest cauldron lighter in history)
The Surprise: This was the first time we got to see a fireball (fire on a guide rope) that Grange lit and it then flew into the cauldron.
The Cauldron: like a giant musical instrument honestly
The Lasting Memory: It was the first night time ceremony which allowed them to do the fireball
1992 – Barcelona, Spain
Cauldron lighter: Antonio Rebollo (paralympic archer)
The Surprise: He shot a freaking flaming arrow into the cauldron!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
The Cauldron: It was tall, and high above the stadium, overseeing it, and inaccessible to anyone but that did matter because...
The Lasting Memory: He just shot a flaming arrow into the cauldron to light it!!! I really like to think this will forever remain one of, if not the, coolest lighting ever. It took a massive amount of skill to pull this off and that's what made it so damn impressive. I really like to think this was the pivotal moment that took us from really cool, to holy shit no one could have dreamed thats how we were going to do it pushing the envelope. This will always be my favorite, mostly just from the level of difficulty and bad-assness of it.
1994 – Lillehammer, Norway
Cauldron lighter: Haakon, Crown Prince of Norway
The Surprise: He just ski jumped in with the flame in hand!!!!
The Cauldron: It was just a white cylinder, not even that remarkable, it was all about the delivery on this one.
The Lasting Memory: Its silly to lay the importance to Prince of Norway who lit the cauldron because no one cares about that, you can barely even find that part on YouTube, the part people care about was Stein Gruben ski jumping with the flame in hand to deliver it to the games. The insane part is that he wasn't even supposed to do it, he was just the understudy that filled in due to injury.
1996 – Atlanta, United States
Cauldron lighter: Muhammad Ali
The Surprise: Muhammad Ali
The Cauldron: A Large french fries from McDonalds??? Seriously, that's what it looked like
The Lasting Memory: For many people it was obviously Ali holding the flame and then lighting a little fireball the shot up to the very odd, McDonalds french fry holder looking shape. The anticipation of "who will it be" was so great on this one, I remember people visibly trying to figre out who was last in the line.
1998 – Nagano, Japan
Cauldron lighter: Midori Ito (1992 silver medalist)
The Surprise: Chris Moon (a mine explosion survivor) delivers the torch into the stadium and eventually it goes up but then its Ito in gorgeous Japanese traditional outfit from under the stage who does the lighting, not the one who delivered it up there
The Cauldron: Actually very unique with the colors and the way it had a bunch of spurs of sorts
The Lasting Memory: A basic but perfect lighting, proving that you don't always have to be in a running suit, you can look elaborately elegant
2000 – Sydney, Australia
Cauldron lighter: Cathy Freeman (Winner of Olympic silver in 1996 and went o to win in Sydney too, the only person ever to light a cauldron and win a gold medal in the same games.)
The Surprise: the Australians built a freaking waterfall into their stadium but forgot to build a cauldron!!! Where is the flame going to go!!!?
The Cauldron: A hidden from view saucer under a waterfall that rose up and connected to its stem.
The Lasting Memory: My personal favorite cauldron to date, it was completely hidden, yet perfectly in view, the entire time hidden under the water so that final torchbearer Cathy Freeman literally set water on fire. Think about that for a second. She set water on fire, then the flame arose around her, made its way up to the top where it got attached to a stem and rose even higher, its just awesome.
2002 – Salt Lake City, United States
Cauldron lighter: The Whole 1980 U.S. Olympic ice hockey team
The Surprise: Mike Eruzione recreates the famous 1980 medal ceremony with the entire 1980 hockey team
The Cauldron: A beautiful swirling spire very high above everything
The Lasting Memory: Many people remember the torch being skated around the rink, but it seemed silly when you noticed they were just doing circles. But then it got really cool, for Americans at least, when the final torch bearer was captain of the 1980 hockey team, Mike Eruzione. What made it awesome was that he recreated, to the detail, the exact scene of the 1980 medal ceremony, because back then only captains were awarded the medal but in 1980 he waved up the entire team, and did the same with the torch setting the record for the most ever cauldron lighters.
2004 – Athens, Greece
Cauldron lighter: Nikolaos Kaklamanakis (Sailing gold medalist, and won silver in these games)
The Surprise: the flying torch bearers
The Cauldron: I'm sure its not what they were going for but it looked like a giant joint until it was made vertical.
The Lasting Memory: not only did a bunch of torch bearers fly out from the crowd, but Kaklamanakis ran up a shaky staircase to what looked like the biggest joint ever and lit up. The torch then made a 120ish angle turn upward to soar over.
2006 – Torino, Italy
Cauldron lighter: Stefania Belmondo (cross country skier, one of Italy's most decorated olympians with 10 medals)
The Surprise: The whole freaking stadium lights up!?
The Cauldron: Uhh technically the whole stadium got lit up, the cauldron looked like it exploded, but if we're talking just the cauldron it was a cool set of spiraling pipes high above everything.
The Lasting Memory: The stadium blowing up into a giant fireball to light the torch was just awesome.
But lets take a second to awe at this opening ceremony, A Ferrari F1 car did a pit stop and donuts in the stadium... Pavarotti rocked everyone's socks off this was an awesome night. I man McCartney doing "Hey Jude" in 2012 was cool, but Pavarotti doing Nessum Dorma under the light cauldron... I have no words.
On second thought if it were China, the donuts would have made a perfect Olympic rings on the ground... speaking of...
2008 – Bejing, China
Cauldron lighter: Li Ning (China's most decorated athlete, gymnastics, with six medals)
The Surprise: What the hell is going on, are the chinese even human, this whole thing looks like a science fiction thriller, people are flying, the torch is gigantic but it was literally not there 2 seconds ago!!!
The Cauldron: an amazing paper spiral look, but crazier is that it literally wasn't there until it was time for the lighting.
The Lasting Memory: The memory everyone in the world had was spending the next 2 weeks trying to pick their jaw up off the floor from the opening ceremony, the dancing, the drumming, the blocks, the largest LED screens ever, the projected videos, the dancing calligraphy, and to top it off their torch lighter was suspended and ran the entire length of the stadium's rim sideways, and then lit a cauldron that appears out of freaking nowhere.
2010 – Vancouver, Canada
Cauldron lighter: Catriona Le May Doan, Steve Nash, Nancy Greene and Wayne Gretzky...ish
The Surprise: Soo... I guess only 3 torch lighters needed?
The Cauldron: It was supposed to be, and eventually was, 4 leaning towers around a master cauldron, but one of them got stuck so eventually they gave in and just lit the 3 that were up. After wards they fixed the 4th and got it done.
The Lasting Memory: Sadly all video of this ceremony is being pulled off youTube, and the collage below doesn't fully show the awkward million hours everyone stood around waiting to see if the 4th tower would show up. It was awesome of Canada though to have the idea of having 4 towers leading up to a master cauldron.
2012 – London, England
Cauldron lighter: Seven unknown aspiring young athletes
The Surprise: After high stakes gambling, worldwide speculation, the Britians turn to 7 unknown young athletes to light the numerous cauldrons, rather than a single one.
The Cauldron: One mini cauldron for every country participating in the Olympics
The Lasting Memory: London did what they do, they saw what China did and knew they couldn't compete with the scale so they brought their ingenuity. Rather than a famous athlete they sent their youth to do the lighting, and rather than one big cauldron, the made a ring of small ones that each country was able to take home. Innovation in spades those Brits.
2014 – Sochi, Russia
Cauldron lighter: Irina Rodnina and Vladislav Tretiak (triple gold medalists for Russia in figure skating and hockey respectively)
The Surprise: None really outside of who would light it, everyone was convinced it would be Putin's girlfriend. But the cauldron was built in plain sight outside the stadium, and it lit up just about as expected. It was awesome to see the way the flamethrowers crossed patterns going up to the cauldron.
The Cauldron: A leaning spire in the center of all the indoor facilities of the Olympics.
The Lasting Memory: Everyone will always remember that 5th ring that never opened, and that Russia has inspired some great music... but in terms of the torch it was so very pulled back from expectations of recent ceremonies, and if anything the lasting memory was that they left the stadium and lit a torch no one there could see, literaly. Sure it could be seen during the day but not by anyone attending the ceremony; this is a video shot by someone in the ceremony, watch the runner disappear and then you have to watch the rest on a TV screen.
I also sadly can't embed anything because the IOC and Russia are deleting any video of this ever happening from the internet.Well sort-of, you can click this link of the complete opening ceremony,, then fast forward a few hours in and find the cauldron lighting.
So this all brings us to Rio, Brazil then doesn't it?
2014 – Rio, Brazil
Cauldron lighter: ???
The Surprise: ???
The Cauldron: ???
The Lasting Memory: ???
What do you have in store for us Rio...? We await in great anticipation for tomorrow night!!!
2018 - Pyeongchang, South Korea
2020 – Tokyo, Japan
2022 - Bejing, China