The Olympic torch is rich in symbolism – and its design always generates headlines. Some are more successful than others: here are five that embody the spirit of the games
To celebrate the launch of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics this week, following on from our Brief History of the Olympic Flame, we turn to the fascinating backstory of the Olympic torch.
Each games has its own unique torch design – tailormade to embody the host country’s craftmanship or to reflect the Olympic ideal of peace. Some torches have harked back to the event’s roots in ancient Greece, while others have favoured cutting-edge industrial design.
From the most beautiful torches ever to grace the games, to ones with particularly powerful symbolism, we examine the five most inspiring Olympic torch designs in history.
The Torch of Hope: Tokyo 2020
Tokujin Yoshioka’s Olympic torch has been hailed for transforming the legacy of the Fukushima earthquake and tsunami of 2011 into a far more positive symbol.
It’s topped with a cherry-blossom motif – a flower that’s close to the hearts of the Japanese – and is designed to bring them together around a message of support and encouragement. The body of the torch has five cylinders representing the flower’s petals: each generates a flame which is united in the centre. Equally innovative is the fact that its unusual shape was achieved by using the same aluminium extrusion technology that helps to produce the country’s famously progressive bullet trains.
Most inspiringly, approximately 30% of the torch is made from recycled aluminium recovered from the temporary housing units built in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. It’s a potent symbol of the hope that the games will aid reconstruction in disaster-hit areas of the country – and a worthy focal point for Tokyo 2020’s torch-relay concept, ‘Hope Lights Our Way’, whose message feels yet more poignant with the postponement of the games in the wake of Covid-19.
The Torch of Peace: London 1948
The 1948 London games were the first after the Second World War. London was still in ruins, with rationing in place – leading to the event’s nickname, the ‘austere games’ (athletes brought their own sandwiches, and the British made their own uniforms).
Yet while the event was low-key compared to the kind of preparations that accompany today’s Olympics, it was also a perfect opportunity to revive the games’ message of peace – largely through the relay.
This kicked off in Olympia, when the first runner, a Greek corporal, lay down his arms, removed his military uniform, and appeared clad as an athlete – echoing the ceasing of hostilities that occurred during the ancient games in Greece. The torch was greeted with wild rejoicing wherever it went, some fifty thousand people welcoming it when it made its final journey from Dover to Wembley.
Designer Ralph Lavers was briefed to create something ‘inexpensive and easy to make’ but ‘of pleasing appearance and a good example of British craftmanship’. The end result, rather classical in design, was good enough to be reused at the 1956 Olympics.
A Torch Down Under: Sydney 2000
Amongst the most elegant Olympic torches, this sleek design reflected three famous facets of Australian culture: the boomerang, the Sydney Opera House, and the waters of the Pacific Ocean. It wasn’t just made Down Under – it also went down under, being the first Olympic torch to be submerged (near the Great Barrier Reef).
The torch reflected the elements of earth, fire, and water through its three-layer design – a concept echoed in the lighting of the Olympic cauldron, which had a seventy-metre-high waterfall as its backdrop. The final torch bearer, athlete Cathy Freeman, appeared to ignite the cauldron through the element of water, all the while being surrounded by a ring of fire.
Freeman’s inclusion touched on another inspiring aspect of the 2000 Olympic flame: secret until the day itself, the opening ceremony included a long sequence celebrating forty-thousand years of Aboriginal life in Australia – a turning point for relations with the indigenous community.
The truly Olympic torch: Lillehammer 1994
While the Olympic torch has had some James Bond moments, none were quite so worthy of the Olympic ideal as its adventures during the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer.
The design itself was extraordinary enough: some 152 centimetres high, or almost the height of an adult, it featured a long birchwood handle, reflecting Norwegian tradition, and a polished aluminium blade nodding to the country’s embrace of modernity and technology. The supple, elongated shape was intended to form a harmonious whole with the torch bearer – of key importance, as it was soon to embark upon jaw-droppingly dangerous feats.
For the first time in Olympic history, the torch was passed between two parachutists, high above the German town of Grefrath. Not content with this aerial display, the last torch runner held it aloft as he glided down the ramp of a ski jump – a spectacular moment of Olympic theatrics.
East Meets West: Seoul, 1988
Arguably the most beautiful Olympic torch ever produced, the Seoul ‘88 design features the rare luxury of a leather handle. Its brass bowl is engraved with two traditional Korean dragons symbolising harmony between East and West (in Chinese astrology, 1988 was the Year of the Dragon).
It was an apt choice for the event, which symbolically helped to lay the groundwork for the end of the Cold War: unlike previous games, which had involved many politically related boycotts, all but seven countries around the world participated.
Much like the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, which had been a rite of passage for the Japanese economy and embodied the country’s re-emergence on the world stage after the war, the South Korean government hoped to use the event as a launching party. It was a triumph, boosting South Korea’s international relations – and helping to pave the way for it to become an economic world leader.