Culture Magazine

Cauldron Lighting 101

By Pinkall @pinkall
In the ceremony, there are many protocol elements; these are elements that must happen as part of the ceremony.  Some portions are rigidly adhered to: anthems and flag presentations, speeches and declarations, oaths.  Others have complete artistic freedom like the cauldron lighting, the display of the Olympic Rings, and the release of doves.  I wanted to make you aware of these when you watch because it is always one of my favorite moments to see how each Olympics adapts the ceremony as their own.
Let's talk about the most exciting moment in the Olympic Ceremony, the cauldron lighting.  The cauldron lighting originates in the 1912 Stockholm games, although largely unknown, even in Sweden.  Swedish public media did a radio feature in 2012 on my research about it, partly because it was something few knew about even though it was in the Olympic record.  Again in 1928, a cauldron was used in Amsterdam and in 1932 in Los Angeles.  By the time the Nazi Germany hosted the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, they introduced a torch relay beginning in Olympia, Greece where the flame was lit by the rays of the sun.
From then on, there wasn't much innovation.  Essentially, the torch was hand delivered (and once by horseback in the 1956 Equestrian Games) to the cauldron in every occasion, until 1992.  In 1992, a truly magnificent event occurred in Barcelona:

Before that moment, say the 1992 Winter games in Albertville held just a few months before Barcelona and in many other instances, the cauldron was lit in the middle or beginning of the ceremony and artistic programs continued afterward.  The lighting was just one of several important elements.  After 1992, the cauldron lighting became the singular climactic moment of every ceremony, furthering the evolution of the ceremony as an art form.  In ceremonies to come, the cauldron lighting would become a plot element around which directors would build a story.
It's important to note that Moscow's (1980) mega-ceremony spurred a Cold War response by the US with Los Angeles' (1984) even larger ceremony, beginning a string of theatrical extravaganzas that still continue.  In a way, each host city was looking to one-up the previous city, especially in its most memorable moment.
In 1994, Lillehammer tested out another spectacular feat for the world-wide audience adding great risk and drama.

This added risk proved exceptionally powerful to the world-wide audience and especially to the media. The manner by which the cauldron would be lit soon became just a important as who would light the flame.  It was so obsessed over in the media that when the Atlanta (1996) and Nagano (1998) lightings failed to capture the awe of Lillehammer and Barcelona, they were highly criticized.  
With a massive amount of pressure, director Ric Birch knew just how to find that drama in Sydney (2000).  His ceremony story arc, with character building, even an operatic score focused toward an enormous secret - where was the cauldron?  Birch decided to completely hide it.  And with an innovative lighting, Sydney faced near disaster when things didn't go as planned.  For the television audience though, it proved to be a nerve-wracking, yet exceptionally exciting few minutes.

Athens (2004) furthered the trend of introducing a technically bombastic cauldron lighting with this mechanical beast.  Thankfully there wasn't a glitch, but check out the tilted, movable jumbotron!

The ceremony of Beijing 2008, the biggest in history, also increased the drama and technicality of the cauldron lighting by not only hiding the cauldron until the very last minute, but suspending the final torch bearer hundreds of feet in the air as he "runs" a final lap.

Unfortunately the spectacle ran into a major mishap in 2010 in Vancouver.  Every Winter Games until this point used the simple hand delivered lighting for the most part.  In a surprising move, Vancouver attempted a hidden cauldron that spectacularly emerged from the domed stadium floor, but one of the arms of the cauldron failed to rise.  I'm unable to embed this, so you can watch it by clicking here.  The lighting begins at the 3 hr. mark.
Since then, London and Sochi offered rather simple cauldron lightings - the notable exception to tradition being that London constructed the cauldron during the ceremony.  Each country brought out a metal part as they entered the stadium during the parade of nations, and it was slowly put together over the evening.  This is what the end result looked like.

Cauldron Lighting 101

London Olympic Cauldron

What will be in store for Rio?  Check it out in ONE WEEK - AUGUST 5!!  Until then, check out all the cauldron lightings and ceremonies at
Today's teaser - I had another one planned for today, but then getty images took this from its helicopter.  I bet you really want to know what's behind that...
Cauldron Lighting 101

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