What is the Olympic Torch Relay?

Mary McMahon

The Olympic Torch Relay is an international event which is designed to get the whole world involved with the Olympic Games, a symbol of brotherhood and friendship which involves athletes from many countries scattered across the Earth. Over the course of the Olympic Torch Relay, a flame is continually passed from torchbearer to torchbearer across the world, traveling from Olympia, Greece, to the stadium where the Olympic Games are held, where the flame is used to light a cauldron. This cauldron then remains lit for the duration of the Olympic Games.

The Olympic Torch Relay starts with a ceremony in Greece.
The Olympic Torch Relay starts with a ceremony in Greece.

Along the way, the Olympic Flame passes through thousands of hands and travels in some very unusual ways to an assortment of places. As the Flame travels, events are held to celebrate it in major cities, and these events also generate excitement about the Olympics. The Olympic Torch Relay typically begins several months before a scheduled Olympic Games, allowing the Olympic Flame to follow a meandering and complex route.

The Olympic Torch Relay is associated with the legend of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.
The Olympic Torch Relay is associated with the legend of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans.

Fire has many associations in many cultures. For the Greeks, fire is closely associated with Prometheus, who stole fire from the god Zeus, and a fire was kept burning throughout the duration of the Ancient Greek Olympiad. In 1928, the tradition of keeping a flame burning during the Olympics was renewed, and organizers came up with the idea of creating an Olympic Torch Relay which would start at the ancient seat of the Olympics.

The Olympic Torch Relay starts with a ceremony in Greece, where a group of women dressed as priestesses lights the Mother Flame using a parabolic mirror and the rays of the sun. Once the flame is lit, it is transferred to a torch which has been designed to resist high winds and rain, and the Olympic Torch Relay commences, with the flame being carried through major cities on foot and then transported via faster methods of transportation between major points on the route.

The Olympic Torch Relay may travel by plane, in which case the flame is enclosed in a special case to comply with air safety regulations. The torch can also go by boat, horse, wheelchair, camel, skier, sled, snorkler, as was the case during the 2000 Olympic Games, when the Olympic Torch traveled underwater along the Great Barrier Reef, or any sort of conveyance you can imagine. Anyone can be a torchbearer, although the Olympic committee usually seeks out people who have made significant contributions to their communities, ranging from NASA scientists to the Secretary of the United Nations.

Once the torch arrives at the Olympic Stadium, it is used to light the cauldron for the games. Often a high-profile athlete from the host nation lights the cauldron, and he or she is accompanied by a procession. In some cases, the final torchbearer might make a splashy entry which references his or her sport. Archers, for example, have used flaming arrows to light the Olympic Cauldron.

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Discussion Comments

Animandel - I agree, Ali was a good choice to carry the torch as the final torch bearer and light the flame. I think the year he did that was 1996. The Olympics were held in the United States that summer. The city was Atlanta, Georgia.

The torch relay has provided some moving moments for me over the years. The people who are chosen to run with the flame are remarkable individuals who have in many cases fought or are fighting tremendous battles. Some of those battles are fights against physical restraints and others are fights against injustices that remain in your society. Many of them are also chosen because they are past Olympians.

The torch bearer I remember, the one that is etched in my memory is Muhammad Ali. He was long since retired when he carried the torch and lit the flame at the Olympics. I don't recall the exact year.

His body was shaking a bit, symptoms of disease. What I remember most is his presence and his spirit. That's the image I most associate with the Olympics.


The torch relay is a great way of connecting people from all over the world symbolically. Think about all the hands that will touch the torch from the time it originates in Greece until it reaches its destination in the host country. The Olympics should be as much about bringing people together as about winning medals.

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