On Saturday, July 7th, 2012, the Olympic flame arrived in Cambridge. Held by a runner in the specially designed Olympic torch, it approached the city centre along streets lined with over 8,000 cheering spectators. The flame then spent two days in Cambridge – days 50 and 51 of a 70-day tour of the UK. This tour, called the Olympic Torch Relay, is an important part of the build-up to the Olympic Games. (The opening ceremony is on Friday, 27th July.) So what is the Olympic Torch Relay and why is it done?
The idea behind the relay is to bring the Olympic flame, which is the symbol of the Olympics, to the people of the host nation. The relay has been specially planned so that 95% of the population live within one hour of its route. This is so that as many people as possible may view the flame as it passes from town to village. The relay will end on July 27th when the flame will be used to light the cauldron during the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium, Stratford, London.
The flame, whether in the torch or the cauldron, represents a link with the Olympic Games of Ancient Greece. During these Games, a sacred flame burned on the altar of the goddess Hera, who was queen of the gods and wife of Zeus. Nowadays, before every Olympic Games, there is a special ritual for the lighting of the flame. It is lit from the sun’s rays at the Temple of Hera in Olympia in a ceremony. After a short tour around Greece, there is another ceremony, this time at the Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, which was used in the first modern Olympic Games in 1896. Here, the flame is officially handed over to the host city. It is then taken to the host country where the Olympic torch relay commences.
At the end of its relay in the UK, the Olympic flame will have passed through 1019 cities, towns and villages. 8000 people will have carried the torch in which the flame burns. These torchbearers will have been chosen or nominated by people in their communities. Many have inspirational stories, having raised money for charities or overcome personal difficulties, such as disabilities. Others will be great athletes.
Each torchbearer runs approximately 300 metres. The point at which one torchbearer gives the torch to the next torchbearer is called the kissing point, (because the torches have to touch or ‘kiss’ to allow the flame to be passed on).
So what does the Olympic torch for London 2012 look like? It is triangular-shaped and made from a light but strong aluminium alloy. It has 8000 holes, each hole representing a torchbearer. The three-sided shape is significant because the number three is important to the Olympic Games for several reasons. The flame itself stands for the three qualities of peace, unity and friendship between the nations of the world. In addition, there are three words in the Olympic motto: faster, higher, stronger. The number three is also significant for London 2012 because the UK has hosted the Olympics twice before, (in 1906 and 1948). London 2012 will therefore be the third Olympics for the UK.
And what would happen if someone accidentally extinguished the Olympic flame as it travelled between destinations? It would simply be lit again with backup flames from Olympia that are carried with the relay in special lamps, though we may never get to hear about this!