In the original series of Star Trek, there is an episode called ‘Who Mourns For Adonais’, in which Captain Kirk meets Apollo, who by the time of stardate 3468.1 is the last of the Greek Gods. He sports a glittering golden tunic and has learned how to jam phasers and hold the Enterprise in a force field. Kirk makes the interesting supposition that this figure, standing in a polystyrene temple is in fact the real Apollo and that the Greek gods were aliens that visited planet earth 5000 years ago. Apollo is spurned by the crew and at the end of the episode fades away bemoaning the fact that no-one believes in him anymore. This conjunction of the ancient and the modern is a staple of our popular culture but in terms of stage dressing be it for a TV science-fiction or an Olympic ceremony created for the camera, there are some very unique reasons why it is undertaken and why when it comes to the latter it must continually evolve.
The modern Olympics was founded in order to ammeliorate moral values across society and it has always called on the sacred role of the Ancient Games as justification for doing so. Of course, social values have changed since 1896 and different organisers have latched onto different aspects of the game and bent it to their will. But quoting visually from the ancient Games is a constant.
This is why the Star Trek analogy is important for the torch relay, which we happily mistake for an ancient one. I have mentioned the pseudo-pagan quality of the ceremony in my previous post and how it contrasted with the overt display of Germany’s manufacturing capabilities in the design of the torch. Indeed one of the the magnesium-fueled torches devices was used to ignite a blast furnce in Essen – a direct connection between the torch and German industrial power. The British though must be responsible for creating this tradition by picking up on the torch as symbol not just of technological prowess of the host nation but fire power as well.
In visual terms the torch of 1948 was the perfect example of the British snatching back their ownership of classical civilisation. Ralph Lavers was the perfect candidate to design the torch for 1948. An architect but also an archaelogist of some renown, Lavers took inspiration from classic Greek and Roman lamps. On the other hand, the torch was the acme of contemporary techological inventiveness.
According to The Official Report of The Organising Committee For The XIV Olympiad, The Fuel Research Station of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which was founded during the First World War was asked to design a suitable container and to recommend a fuel by the Organising Committee. The Fuel Research Station decided to use hexamine in tablet form as the fuel, housed in a perforated canister. In order to make the flame from the hexamine luminous, 6 per cent naphthalene was incorporated in the tablets. Air holes were put in the fuel canister so that, even in a strong wind, the fuel would last for that time. Make no mistake. It was designed to present Britain as a technoglically advanced nation.
The Report is drenched with the rhetoric of technological pride. It recounts that: “to ensure economy of production, the size of tablets had to be similar to those in commercial production, but these were not large enough to ensure the required burning time if all in the fuel pack were lit on ignition. Eight tablets were therefore placed on a central rod, the bottom three being carried in a cup in the holder; as the top tablets burnt away, these were gradually fed up by a spring. To keep the fuel, which readily absorbed moisture, dry under all weather conditions it had to be kept in an airtight pack which would burn completely, leaving no residue to choke the air holes in the canister. A thin nitro-cellulose casing to hold the eight tablets was specially made for the purpose.”
In addition, the British added the tradition of improving the theatrical potential of the final torch: the one that is carried by the final runner in the Stadium and used to light the Olympic Flame. In 1948 the organising committee opted for a magnesium flame in order for it to be seen across the Stadium, even in sunlight. Carrying burning magnesium obviously requires an added degree of protection, and a stainless steel holder was therefor required. This also was designed by Mr. Lavers and made by E.M.I. Factories, Ltd. The candle, which was designed to burn for ten minutes, was supplied by Wessex Aircraft Engineering Co. Ltd which had provided wind direction smoke generators to the British military during the Second World War.
As with the torch relay as a whole, what began as a piece of Nazi propaganda, became in the hands of the British, a tradition. Successive torch relays have used this means of simultaneously showing off their industrial capabilities and finding a way of reinvigorating a toga-clad charade invented by a Nazi with a Jewish wife. The ceremony of the relay became an important means of establishing the Games as an event with roots in the birth of civilisation. However the Torch – in strong contrast – had to be radically reinvented every four years to highlight the relevance of the event. It was the one object that had to be updated. By the time the Winter Games kicked off, twice every four years. In 1960, for the Squaw Valley Winter Games, the torch was designed by John Hench who won an Oscar for Best Special Effect for developing the hydraulic giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
For the 1988 Seoul Games, the Korea Explosive Co., Ltd were given the job of making over 3,300 torches. 3 different designer submitted 13 different designs to the organising committee which eventually chose a Brazier submitted by Prof. Lee Woo-song of Sookmyung Women’s University. In addition mobile cauldrons in which the flame would lie in state overnight during the torch relay were created. The cauldrons, 1.65m high and nearly1m in diameter, used propane gas as fuel and had a strong resistance to wind and rain. The cauldron could be fixed on to ships and could remain burning at speeds of up to 30 knots an hour. South Korea is not just a place where cheap watches are made, was the not-too-subtle claim of the torch. We make series bits of kit here.
But the technological claim of the torch was not always pre-eminent in later Games. Other symbolic claims where made by later torch designs. In 1992, for the Barcelona Games, Andre Ricard who designed coffee machines for Gaggia and Moka created the torch. Whereas Seoul at the time wanted to highlight South Korea’s role as a technical innovator rather than just a place where cheap electrical goods were knocked out, the Barcelona Games were part of an attempt to return the city to the pantheon of great European cities.The general effect of the Barcelona torch was to convey to the viewer that the city was a stylish place – the kind of place you might drink an espresso at a pavement café. It looks like the kind of bottle-opener you’d buy for the man who has everything.
The Winter Games however, have attracted the most outrageous and overtly propagandist of torch designs. The French hired Philippe Starck to design a typically phallic effort for Albertville in 1992. The torch for Lillehammer meanwhile was extremely thin so it wouldn’t go out when it was delivered in dramatic fashion by a ski-jumper. Best of all was the torch for the Turin Games in 2006, designed by Pininfarina, the famous car design company. Overseen by Andrea Pininfarina the chief executive of the company himself, a legendary designer who also worked on the Ferrari Enzo supercar as well as less exciting car designs for Hyundai, Daewoo and Ford, the design was inspired by both a ski and a mountain peak. The torch was around 2.3kg -well over twice the weight of the torch for the Beijing Games. Each athlete who carried it, felt the burden of showing the world how dynamic Turin’s automobile design industry was. Pininfarina himself would die two years after the games when he was knocked off his Vespa by an elderly driver who failed to cede right of way.