How They Keep Olympic Flame Lit

In any Olympic year, the logistics of keeping an "eternal flame" burning for a global torch relay are daunting. There's wind, rain, sleet and snow. There's the organizing of hundreds of torch bearers, support personnel and security. There's transportation scheduling by airplane, bus, van, you name it. And this year, there are hundreds of determined protesters along the way.

But Beijing Olympic organizers say they have a secure plan for keeping the flame lit throughout the four-month, 85,100-mile trek around the world. Along with rigorous requirements for the torch's ability to hold up against rough weather—this year's torch can withstand winds of up to 40 miles per hour and stay lit in the rain—there is always a backup safety lantern that is kept behind tight security, far from the public ceremony or protesters.

"When they first light the sacred flame by Mount Olympus [in Greece], they actually have it in a lantern and then each Olympic relay committee designs their own version of how to keep it lit throughout," says Robin Howland, who publishes books on the Olympics, including the history and origins of the torch relay.

Howland carried the Olympic torch in Los Angeles during the 2004 Olympic relay. And she told NEWSWEEK how you keep an eternal flame glowing for more than four months: release as little information as possible about the lantern's location. While the torch is out in the open, "the lantern is kept under very strict security," says Howland. She recalls her own torchbearing experience, where she was told where to show up and what to bring but never learned the location of the lantern. "They don't advertise where that flame is being kept, whether it's under security at a particular hotel. Even the torchbearers don't get that information."

So from the standpoint of the Olympics, keeping the lantern lit is more important than the torch that spectators and protesters turn out to see. "The actual Olympic flame is always lit somewhere else," says Howland. In the case of a torch being extinguished, she says it's most likely that it would be taken back to this flame to be relit (although, with the security precautions necessary, that could cause "hours-long delays.")

 Although extinguishing the torch carried by runners doesn't technically mean the eternal one has gone out, the symbolism is still strong. "It definitely puts a shadow over what the torch relay is all about," says Howland. "It does hurt the Olympic joy and mutual respect the Games are supposed to be promoting."

The modern tradition of an Olympic flame began at the 1928 Amsterdam Games and the relay began with the Berlin Olympics eight years later, where it was lit in Greece and transported to Berlin by 3,075 torchbearers over 11 days. In 1972, the Olympic organizers created "protocols for how to carry the flame and who should be selected to carry it," says Howland, but those regulations "have changed again and again" with every Games. They have often allowed for a number of unlikely modes of transportation. A Concorde jet took the flame between Athens and Paris for the 1992 Olympics and a laser, beamed via satellite, transferred the flame from Athens to Ottawa for the 1976 Montreal Games. Camels carried the torch across the Australian desert during the 2000 Sydney Games.
At the closing ceremonies of the initial 1936 torch relay, this announcement displayed on the stadium's board: "May the Olympic torch be carried on with ever greater eagerness, courage and honor for the good of humanity throughout the ages!" More than 70 years later, Olympic organizers are still attempting to make good on that promise.