How Is the Olympic Flame Lit—and How Does It Stay Lit?

 Jamie Squire, Getty Images
Jamie Squire, Getty Images

On February 9, 2018, billions of people from around the world will tune in to watch the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. While it’s sure to have a different tone from the 2014 opening ceremonies in Sochi, one thing that will remain constant: the traditional lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

The Olympic torch is reignited months before each new cycle of the games in a ceremony in Ancient Olympia, Greece. An actress playing an ancient priestess uses a parabolic mirror and the sun’s rays to set the torch relay in motion (if it's cloudy on the day of the ceremony, they light the torch from a second torch that was lit in the parabolic mirror on a sunny rehearsal day).

Once the flame is reestablished, it’s up to thousands of torchbearers to ensure that it makes it to its final destination safely; this year, 7500 torchbearers have carried the torch to make it to Pyeongchang. The path from Greece to the Games can even take the torch underwater, as it did at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, when a special underwater flare was employed to send the flame over the Great Barrier Reef.

Getty Images

The intention is for the flame to stay continuously lit throughout its entire journey, but there's almost always difficulty at some point along the route. One journalist reported that the flame was extinguished at least 44 times on its way to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, and the Rio relay for the 2016 Summer Games saw its fair share of mishaps as well. On June 20, 2016, a jaguar that was part of the relay was shot and killed after it escaped from its handlers and reportedly lunged at a soldier; several days later, a Brazilian man attempted to douse the torch as it passed through his town. Just days before the ceremony, protestors actually shut down the torch procession in Angra dos Reis, Brazil, stealing it from the torchbearer and extinguishing the flame.

Sometimes it's Mother Nature who extinguishes the torch. In 2013, it had to pass through what amounted to a wind tunnel at the Kremlin, where it fell victim to a particularly persistent gust of wind. It was quickly re-lit by a security agent’s Zippo. (That’s a no-no, by the way. There’s protocol for relighting the flame, and it involves a backup torch also lit from the original source in Athens—not a random lighter.)

When the flame does go out for good, it will be intentional; the snuffing ceremony on the final day of the 2018 Winter Games will put the flame to rest until the relay for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo begins.

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10 Fast Facts About Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Wilma Rudolph breaks the tape as she wins the Olympic 4 x 100 relay in 1960.
Robert Riger/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph made history as a Black female athlete at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy. The 20-year-old Tennessee State University sprinter was the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics. Rudolph’s heroics in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4 x 100-meter events only lasted seconds, but her legend persists decades later, despite her untimely 1994 death from cancer at age 54. Here are some facts about this U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame member.

1. Wilma Rudolph faced poverty and polio as a child.

When Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee, she weighed just 4.5 pounds. Olympic dreams seemed impossible for Rudolph, whose impoverished family included 21 other siblings. Among other maladies, she had measles, mumps, and pneumonia by age 4. Most devastatingly, polio twisted her left leg, and she wore leg braces until she was 9.

2. Wilma Rudolph originally wanted to play basketball.

The Tennessee Tigerbelles. From left to right: Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, Wilma Rudolph, and Barbara Jones.Central Press/Getty Images

At Clarksville’s Burt High School, Rudolph flourished on the basketball court. Nearly 6 feet tall, she studied the game, and ran track to keep in shape. However, while competing in the state basketball championship in Nashville, the 14-year-old speedster met a referee named Ed Temple, who doubled as the acclaimed coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles track team. Temple, who would coach at the 1960 and 1964 Olympics, recruited Rudolph.

3. Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut as a teenager.

Rudolph hit the limelight at 16, earning a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. But that didn’t compare to the media hype when she won three gold medals in 1960. French journalists called her “The Black Pearl,” the Italian press hailed “The Black Gazelle,” and in America, Rudolph was “The Tornado.”

4. After her gold medals, Wilma Rudolph insisted on a racially integrated homecoming.

Tennessee governor Buford Ellington, who supported racial segregation, intended to oversee the Clarksville celebrations when Rudolph returned from Rome. However, she refused to attend her parade or victory banquet unless both were open to Black and white people. Rudolph got her wish, resulting in the first integrated events in the city’s history.

5. Muhammad Ali had a crush on Wilma Rudolph.

Ali—known as Cassius Clay when he won the 1960 Olympic light heavyweight boxing title—befriended Rudolph in Rome. That fall, the 18-year-old boxer invited Rudolph to his native Louisville, Kentucky. He drove her around in a pink Cadillac convertible.

6. John F. Kennedy literally fell over when he invited Wilma Rudolph to the White House.

President Kennedy, Wilma Rudolph, Rudolph’s mother Blanche Rudolph, and Vice President Johnson in the Oval Office.Abbie Rowe/White House Photographs/John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum // Public Domain

In 1961, Rudolph met JFK in the Oval Office. After getting some photos taken together, the President attempted to sit down in his rocking chair and tumbled to the floor. Kennedy quipped: “It’s not every day that I get to meet an Olympic champion.” They chatted for about 30 minutes.

7. Wilma Rudolph held three world records when she retired.

Rudolph chose to go out on top and retired in 1962 at just 22 years old. Her 100-meter (11.2 seconds), 200-meter (22.9 seconds), and 4 x 100-meter relay (44.3 seconds) world records all lasted several years.

8. Wilma Rudolph visited West African countries as a goodwill ambassador.

The U.S. State Department sent Rudolph to the 1963 Friendship Games in Dakar, Senegal. According to Penn State professor Amira Rose Davis, while there, Rudolph independently met with future Ghanaian president Kwame Nkrumah’s Young Pioneers, a nationalist youth movement. She visited Mali, Guinea, and the Republic of Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso) as well.

9. Denzel Washington made his TV debut in a movie about Wilma Rudolph.

Before his Oscar-winning performances in Glory (1989) and Training Day (2001), a 22-year-old Denzel Washington portrayed Robert Eldridge, Rudolph’s second husband, in Wilma (1977). The film also starred Cicely Tyson as Rudolph’s mother Blanche.

10. Schools, stamps, and statues commemorate Wilma Rudolph’s legacy.

Berlin, Germany, has a high school named after Rudolph. The U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp celebrating her in 2004. Clarksville features a bronze statue by the Cumberland River, the 1000-capacity Wilma Rudolph Event Center, and Wilma Rudolph Boulevard. In Tennessee, June 23 is Wilma Rudolph Day.