An Eternal Flame

[Note: This blog entry was my final essay for a course on the Olympics And The Media.]

The opening ceremony is one of two ceremonies that bookends the Olympic Games and that seeks to place the Olympic Games as part of a narrative that combines the elements of the organizing committee wishing to tell a certain story about the host nation or city within the confines of the rules and structures of the IOC and the history and tradition of the Olympic games going back all the way to ancient Greece. Additionally, all of these rules and narrative strategies are influenced and constrained by the requirements of the media of television which even now remains the primary means by which the story of the opening ceremony is told both to domestic as well as foreign audiences. In order to provide a comparison between different opening ceremonies and the stories that they tell, while controlling as best as possible for the rough level of technology available to tell the story through their opening ceremonies, let us compare the opening ceremonies of London for the 2012 Summer Olympics and that of Sochi for the 2012 Winter Olympics in order to examine what story was told, what elements were in common, and what distinctive elements were chosen for artistic and narrative purposes.

According to the IOC [1], the Olympic flame has a variety of important elements for Olympism as a whole. For one, the lighting of the flame in Olympia is designed to pay homage to the origins of the Olympics in the religious and cultural beliefs of ancient Greece, where an ancient fire burned to Zeus during the course of the games. Additionally, it is designed to show the connection between the modern and ancient Olympic games, and was added to the modern Olympic games in 1928 in Amsterdam. Additionally, the passing of the flame through thousands of relay runners recalls the Athenian torch races, known as the lampadedromia, which were dedicated to various heathen gods of fire. Additionally, the relay race, which was only added to the modern Olympic games in 1936 in Hitler’s Berlin, is intended to be a sign of peace and friendship. Nor is the Olympic flame the only matter of the opening ceremonies that are governed by protocol. Each opening ceremony also contains an oath for athletes (written by Pierre de Coubertin himself and started in Antwerp in 1920), referees (first featured in Munich in 1972), and coaches (a new innovation that started in London in 2012) who are citizens of the host country. This oath has changed over the years in response to shifting moral and ethical concerns (wording about doping was added starting in 2000 in Sydney). Additionally, this part of the ceremony also includes the performance of the Olympic anthem, composed prior to the first modern Olympics in 1896 but only became the official Olympic anthem in 1958 [2]. From this we can see that there are some major elements of the opening ceremony that are governed by rules and procedures that are uniform across all Olympic games.

Many of these elements regarding the torch have profound connections with the religious beliefs of ancient Greece. Not only is the lighting of the flame in an Olympic stadium a connection with Zeus and the torch relay connected with Athenian worship practices towards their gods of fire, one of the reasons that the Apostle Paul considered Athens to be a particularly religious city [3], but there are other connections between the rituals of the torch ceremony and the religious practices of ancient Greece. There was no torch ceremony at either the ancient Olympic games or the Isthmus games, but ancient Athenians had a relay race to honor gods like Prometheus [4], who were praised for bringing fire from Mount Olympus to mankind. Additionally, the goals of peace that the torch is meant to symbolize come from the ancient tradition of the truce by which the time of the Olympics was supposed to be a time of peace between nations to lay down their weapons at least temporarily for common athletic efforts. Even in modern day contexts, Russia at least waited until after the Sochi Olympics was over before invading its neighbor Ukraine to carve up its territory among various puppet states [5]. Even the Russians, by no means good ambassadors of the Olympic ideals of peace and international harmony even as they hosted the most recent Winter Olympics, at least had the good sense to wait until the Olympic truce was over before invading their neighbor, even if the flames were barely cold when they did so.

In order to better understand the artistry as well as the production value of the opening ceremonies, a comparison between London and Sochi’s opening ceremonies will be undertaken. In order to shorten the analysis, we will focus on the seven minutes that are taken to light the cauldron in London [6] and the nine minutes it took to light the cauldron in Sochi [7]. Even though these elements will be focused on, it is important to remember that the opening ceremony is a much larger show that includes a procession of athletes and coaches from all over the world who are participating in order to make a show of the size of the Olympic ceremony as well as the global scope, and the combination of harmony and competition that take place in the Olympic Games. Additionally, the Opening Ceremony is designed to show something about the society or city that is hosting the Olympics. Atlanta, for example, was famous for its pickup trucks and cheerleaders, showing the “New South” that Atlanta represents as vibrant and globally significant, rising from the ashes of Sherman’s March some 130 years before. Russia, on the other hand, had an illuminated snowflake for its ceremony that did not work, and the shots were doctored for the Russian audience to remove all portrayal of the error, itself an act of camera work and film editing that carried with it a significant amount of political importance, helping the ceremony be a propaganda effort in showing Russia’s best side and avoiding any portrayal of errors to a domestic audience (as there was no such control over the international feed) [8]. Time and space limitations prevent these larger comparisons of the shows from being examined in detail, even if they demonstrate the same technical role of camera shots and use of practice footage to create a narrative that does not entirely correspond with reality. That said, it is still useful to look at both of these opening ceremonies from the perspective of the elements of the torch ceremony, the language of television that is used to convey these points to a global audience, and the symbolic and ceremonial language

For the London ceremony, the Olympic torch was brought into the stadium by a single runner, but witnessed by 500 of the people who worked to build the Olympic park. At this point, though, there as a multi-racial group of young people who then passed the torch through the crowd of athletes and witnesses to the tender tenor singing of a song about the Olympic flame along a spiral path towards the torch itself. The torchbearer who carried the Olympic torch into the stadium was Steven Redgrave, a famous British athlete who had won gold medals at five different summer Olympics in men’s rowing. On the contrary, the young people who shared the torch among each other were not famous athletes, even though each of them had been nominated by an athlete to participate in their dramatic part of the ceremony. After what looks to be spiral type of run of about a mile or so, they stop running and hug and light the torches of the other runners, and then light coals which then cause spontaneous combustion of other coals, which are then moved up from a circle to make one cauldron from the many elements. Once the cauldron is lit London explodes in fireworks and the sounds of rock & roll music, a contrast of the size of the Olympics as a whole with the small size of the cauldron itself. Throughout the entire ceremony of the lighting of the cauldron, the last part of the opening ceremony has

From a television shot perspective, the camera work for the London torch ceremony is a cleverly orchestrated montage. There is a wide variety of shots taken to increase drama and tell a compelling and somewhat complex narrative. There a steady medium-length shot looking directly at the tunnel where Steve Redgraves enters the stadium, along with a close-up shot of him running past the 500 uniformly dressed representatives of the builders of the park. Once in the stadium there is a complicated mixture of shots as well, including close-in dynamic shots of the runners that show their effort and harmony, including their facial expressions of happiness or even pride, as well as cut shots to the male singer who is singing the torch anthem, and even an aerial shot that shows the large crowd in the stadium as well as the path that the runners had to take in order to carry the torch from the entrance of the stadium to the final lighting. Some of the shots focus on the torch itself and not even any of the runners, as the torch is the star of the show, here. After the running, the young runners hug the athletes who nominated them, a contrast between their black and white uniforms, while a variety of shots show the audience cheering and the lighting of the various torches. Then there is a variety of shots, including some fairly long-lasting shots, in a montage to show the cauldron being lit and coming together, and then once the cauldron has come together there is an aerial shot of downtown London with a large fireworks presentation cutting to scenes of running from the past (like Jesse Owens in 1936), presenting the juxtaposition of Olympic present glory with the glories of Olympic past.

From a symbolic and ceremonial perspective, it is curious to note the elements of the cauldron and how they relate to the aforementioned elements of the heathen rituals attached to the Athenian torch ceremony and the ancient rituals of fire as symbolic of passion and heat and light. It is telling that the lighting of the torch takes place from several torches that light different coals that combine to light the giant Olympic torch. It would appear that this choice to separate the torches and have a diverse group of young runners from many backgrounds is done to symbolize the attempt of the Olympic Games to help in the creation of a harmonious world from many diverse elements. One sees, for example, a similar motive in the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” in the founding of the United States, the belief that one unified whole can be created from many without destroying the diversity of the many elements. Strikingly, though, in London the cauldron is designed to be in a stadium that is open to the air (in an area that rains a lot and where fire might be a bit threatened or a bit dangerous) but is not visible to the outside world unless one was over the stadium looking down. In this particular case, the cauldron was designed to be the centerpiece of Olympic stadium, not visible to the world at large, an unusual aesthetic decision to say the least.

For the Sochi Olympics, tennis star Maria Sharapova brought the Olympic torch into the stadium dressed mostly in white and unaccompanied by anyone else. Once inside the stadium the torch was passed, in turn, to a variety of well-known Russian athletes, like Yelena Isinbayeva, Aleksandr Karelin, Alina Kabaeva, and then Irina Rodnina, who quickly passed it to Vladislav Tretiak (a former Russian hockey player) while they ran together to light the torch. In fact, a lot of the torchbearers ran along each other, although it was a more hierarchical running style than the more collegial style than was the case in London. Also, there were some differences in the people who ran, in that the London OCOG chose young people from a diverse background while Sochi OCOG chose well-known mostly 30-something or older Russians with a very monochromatic background, emphasizing the unity of Russian society as opposed to its diversity. This is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the torch relay before entering the stadium went through all of the Russian sections, paying particular attention to those border regions that Russia took from other nations like Finland and Japan, showing that while Russia is in reality a diverse place with a complicated history and geography, the image that Russia wanted to present to the world in Sochi was a more unified film.

From a television shot perspective, the montage for the cauldron ceremony has, as was the case with London, a wide variety of shots. There are some close in shots as well as medium shops that point at the “Frozen-like” quality of the Olympic stadium, which is suitable for a Winter Olympics. There were some dynamic shots that showed the runners running along the barren “frozen pond” outside of the stadium towards the Olympic park where the cauldron was located. There were also some wide shows and some aerial shots that captured the large sense of barren space that the Sochi opening ceremony was known for. Rather than the crowded people that one saw in London, the immense sense of space along with the blue-white ice theme and the mostly white costumes captured a much more wintry sensibility than was the case in London, brought out by the wide-angle aerial shots mixed with the close-in shots of the runners (one in front with the torch and the rest running behind, until the end when they run side by side) in order to capture the mix of grand scale of empty Siberian space and the emotions of the runners. Before the runners reach the cauldron there is a War and Peace-style crowd of cultured Russians in late 18th century fashion, complete with powdered wigs and Regency ballgowns out of a Jane Austen adaptation, filmed in an rolling shot for an “action” shot. The various shots are designed to tell a story of Russian unity and cultural excellence before the eyes of the world.

From a symbolic ceremonial perspective, there are a lot of differences between the cauldron in Sochi and that in London. There is one central cauldron, deep blue in color, lit from the base in a straight line curving up to the top of the torch. Unlike with London, the cauldron is outside in the park (and not inside in the stadium) and was visible to the outside world on a curved and elevated platform. Rather than making the cauldron a central element of the stadium but invisible to the outside world, the Sochi Olympics made the cauldron the center of the park and open to the world as a whole to see the flame of Olympic passion in Russia. Rather than seeing unity through diversity, Russia’s opening ceremony was a way of seeking uniformity, presumably from above. Given the fact that Sochi was the favorite vacation spot of Stalin [9] and was developed in part as a replacement to the Crimean resorts that became a part of the Ukraine (ironically, what were seized by Rusisa’s army within days of the end of the Sochi Olympics), the holding of the Winter Olympics there was a way of seeking legitimacy for Russia as a uniform and centralized nation (despite its disunited and federalist reality), showing off the flame before the eyes of the world.

When taken as a whole, both the London and Sochi Olympics manage to tell their own narrative while also working within the confines of Olympic rules and traditions. Both sites utilized fireworks and sought to tell a story of unity for the games they were hosting. For London, though, unity was seen as taking into account the immense diversity of the world, despite a uniformity of costume, while Sochi focused on uniformity in both costumes as well as runners and having one cauldron as opposed to many torches combining together. In many ways, both of these ceremonies took advantage of the common theme of fire and its symbolic meanings. However, London’s aesthetic was more diverse while Sochi’s was more monochromatic in nature. Notably, both opening ceremonies, though, took advantage of the same array of camera shots to show the action of running, the grand scope of the stadium and the cauldron and the route the torch runners took, as well as the fireworks. Both had musical moments (London’s with singing, Sochi’s with orchestral suites) and both were constructed through an array of camera shots to tell a televised narrative of glory that combines the excellence of the past with the glory of the present and that points to an even better future. Whatever can be said about the behavior of Russia’s government, both opening ceremonies succeeded in their goals, and the symbolic picture of the torch and flame and the excellence of the camera work was a large part of that successful effort in both London and Sochi.

[1]… p. 7

[2]… p. 8

[3] Acts 17:16-34

[4]… p. 24

[5] See, for example:



[8] See, for example:


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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4 Responses to An Eternal Flame

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