Sports Legend Revealed: Was a cigarette lighter once used to re-light the Olympic Flame?

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OLYMPIC LEGEND: A cigarette lighter was once used to re-light the extinguished Olympic Flame.


While the interlocking rings that make up the Olympic flag are undoubtedly the most recognizable symbol of the Olympic Games, the Olympic Flame is certainly a close second. Representing the theft of fire from the Greek Gods by Prometheus, a fire was kept burning throughout the ancient Olympic Games. This tradition continues today, with a relay of the flame (typically via torch) from Olympia, Greece (home of the original Olympics) to wherever the current Games are being held. The handling of the Olympic Flame almost always goes off without a hitch. In 1976, however, at the Olympic Games in Montreal, Canada, there was one notable slip that was magnified by the well-meaning efforts of a quick-thinking plumber with a cigarette lighter.

Read on to learn the details!

While today the Olympic Flame is a major symbol for the Olympics (it is one of their most protected trademarks), when the modern Olympics began in 1896, there was no Olympic Flame. It was not until the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Netherlands that the Flame became a part of the Games once more. Amusingly enough, and demonstrating how little the event meant at the time, the first lighter of the Modern Olympic Flame was an unnamed employee of the Electric Utility of Amsterdam, who lit the flame in the Marathon Tower of the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam. Eight years later, with the Olympic Games being held in Berlin, Germany, the Nazis decided to introduce a torch relay. The Olympic Flame would be lit using a concave mirror in Olympia, Greece and transported via torch relay from Olympia to Berlin. This journey, which was over 3,187 kilometers long, was done by 3,331 runners running over twelve days and eleven nights. German propaganda filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, later staged the torch relay for her 1938 film, Olympia. Adolf Hitler felt that the Ancient Greeks were the forerunners to his modern Third Reich, and felt that such a relay was a bold expression of this idea.

While the relay did not have the most noble of starts, a good idea is a good idea, and the torch relay is a good idea, so it has been used in each Olympic Games (both Summer and Winter) ever since. As you might expect, as the years go by, the relay gets more and more elaborate. In the early days of the relay, the torch would be taken to the country where the games were being held and then the actual relay would begin. However, in recent years, more elaborate relays have taken place, likely set off by the 2004 Olympic Games, which were held in Athens, Greece. Since just taking the Flame from Olympia to Athens would not be particularly notable, it was determine instead to have the first global torch relay. A 78 day journey began, with the Olympic flame covering a distance of over 78,000 kilometers with over 11, 3000 torchbearers. The relay passed through Africa and South America for the first time, and all previous Olympic cities were visited before returning to Athens to start the 2004 Summer Games. Since then, the 2008 Summer Olympic and the 2010 Youth Olympics have both traveled to multiple continents, as well.


In 1976, the flame was delivered from Greece to Canada through a particularly novel means of transportation. The Olympic Flame was lit through normal means and taken to Athens, where an electronic pulse derived from the flame was then transmitted via satellite from Athens to Ottawa, where this pulse arrived and was used to set off a laser beam that made a flame. This flame was then taken by hand from Ottawa to Montreal. After the early days where who lit the flame was not a big deal, it has become increasingly important to pick the “right” person to light the Olympic Cauldron where the flame will remain visible to the public throughout the Games (that is actually part of the rules - the flame must always remain visible, which was a problem in the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, when the main stadium where the opening ceremonies were held, BC Place Stadium, was domed, so the Cauldron had to go in a nearby stadium where it would theoretically be visible even when the stadium was closed). The first celebrity to light the Olympic Flame was in 1952, during the Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland. Nine-time Olympic Gold Medalist Paavo Nurmi was given the honor of being the last person in the relay and the famed Olympic runner (who also won three Silver Medals) lit the Olympic Cauldron. In 1976, the lighters were two teenagers, Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, who were track and field athletes, one from “English Canada” and one from “French Canada,” to symbolize the unity between the two parts of Canada.

When the Flame is being transported, there are always backup torches lit from the same source. This is in case of accidental dousing. This way, a backup torch can be used so that the Flame still comes from the same Olympia source. In 2008, during their massive multi-continental torch relay, anti-Chinese protesters gathered at various points of the relay. In Paris, France and London, England, protesters (upset with China’s treatment of Tibet) tried to extinguish the flame repeatedly. The torch with the flame was carried in a high-tech aluminum device designed to withstand high winds and sabotage with fire extinguishers, but eventually the folks in charge of the relay decided it best to extinguish the flame and pick it back up later on in the journey (they actually had to extinguish it again later for the same reasons). However, since they had the backup flames, it was not a big deal.

In 1976, though, an unexpected cloud burst doused the flame at Olympic Stadium. The problem was that no one was around, because there were no games scheduled that day. The only people on scene were workmen. One of the men, a plumber named M. Pierre Bouchard, quickly rushed up the steps of the platform holding the Cauldron and used a cigarette lighter to light some pieces of newspaper, then used his ingenious little contraption to re-light the cauldron. Naturally, when Olympic officials were notified of the situation, they quickly rushed over and extinguished Bouchard’s make-shift Olympic Flame and used the backup torches to re-light the Flame.

While it is pretty humorous, it was also quite enterprising on Bouchard’s part!

--Brian Cronin

Be sure to check out my Sports Legends Revealed for more sports legends! In particular, you should check these legends involving the Olympics...

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Did a Jewish Olympian miss out on a Olympic medal because his competition competed on the Sabbath when the Jewish athlete could not compete?

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