Olympic torches are luminous objects loaded with symbolism

The Olympic Torch Relay represents an iconic start to the Games. Former Olympians and members of the public carry the Olympic flame from Athens to the opening ceremony, marking the official start of the games.

Beginning with the Berlin 1936 Summer Games and the Oslo 1952 Winter Games, each iteration has featured a new torch design that reflects the identity of the host country in addition to displaying the Olympic flame throughout of the torch relay. This year, the games kick off today, July 23, with the lighting of the “Celebration Cauldron” in Tokyo. Expect this to happen just after 8 p.m. Tokyo time, or 7 a.m. EDT.

Creating a unique and functional torch is a colossal undertaking. Identical torches must be made for each relay runner before the first lighting of the Olympic flame in Greece. The entire design, modeling, prototyping, testing, and manufacturing process actually begins years before the games themselves begin.

The design of the Olympic torch

The basic elements of an Olympic torch are simple. It must contain a fuel canister and a relief system to support flame combustion; the Olympic flame must be clearly visible when burning and resistant to extinction in extreme conditions; and it should be manageable in weight and have an easy-to-hold shape. Beyond that, the unique design of a particular host city is left to the organizing committee.

The concept design of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic torch. Courtesy of Tokyo 2020.

Typical torches range from 15 to 32 inches in length. Past materials cover a wide range – aluminum has been a popular choice in recent years, but various types of natural wood, other metals, glass and resins have made torches.

Design teams submit a portfolio of ideas to the committee, which then selects a small group of finalists. Final teams are asked to return after a short period with a plan to obtain the required materials and craft the proposed design, according to Jay Osgerby, co-founder of design studio Barber Osgerby, who was behind the London torch 2012. .

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Each torch is designed with the host country in mind. In the case of the Tokyo 2020 torch, designer Tokujin Yoshioka drew inspiration from Japan’s traditional flower, the cherry blossom. Yoshioka also fashioned the torch from recycled aluminum from the temporary accommodations built in the aftermath of the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, according to the Tokyo Organizing Committee. Approximately 30% of each individual torch contains this recycled aluminum.

Old models of Olympic torches: London and Salt Lake City

For London 2012, the triangular shape of the torch symbolized the Olympic values ​​of excellence, friendship and respect, the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, and commemorated London’s third time as host city. Each torch also had 8,000 perforations to represent the 8,000 torchbearers and the 8,000 miles of the relay route from Greece and then through the UK and Ireland.

Prior to manufacturing, the London 2012 stage designers went through numerous stages of prototyping and material evaluation to optimize the final design. David Brook.

The torch for the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City incorporated an aged metal finish to signify the American West and copper to represent Utah history. Once the initial concept was finalized, the 2002 torch was handed over to a team from the Georgia Institute of Technology for 3D modeling and prototype development. Industrial design lecturer Tim Purdy led the modeling team. “We used 3D printing technology to basically make two prototypes of the torch,” he says. Prototypes were as far as 3D printing could take the torch. “There was nothing that existed at that time in the [3D printing] an industry that can handle extreme heat, so we had to opt for more traditional methods,” Purdy says of moving from prototypes to manufacturing.

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Even in 2012, for London, large-scale 3D printing of the torch was considered, but was abandoned in favor of more reliable metal welding and laser perforation. “It was important to the committee that the torch technology represented technology in the UK,” said Osgerby, who designed the torch with colleague Edward Barber. “At the time, 3D printing and laser sintering were booming in the automotive industry, Formula 1 and aviation.” While Osgerby says laser sintering was a promising option, the committee ultimately decided the technology was too new and they couldn’t afford it to go wrong.

Fuel the Olympic flame

Just as important as the exterior design of the torch is the inner workings of the fuel canister system that powers the visible flame at its top. In fact, according to Tecosim, the engineering firm that collaborated on the London 2012 torch with Barber Osgerby, the first yardstick in deciding what type of fuel and fuel system would be used was cartridge size. The canister determines the amount of space available in the aesthetic design and the amount of fuel needed to produce a yellow flame at least 10 inches high, with a burn time of at least 10 minutes.

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After selecting a fuel canister, the next consideration is the type of fuel that will be used. The seven most recent Olympic torches have been fueled by substances such as propane, butane or a mixture of the two. The London 2012 torch designers explored a green fuel alternative combining Napier grass and coconut oil, but it was ultimately scrapped for the final torch due to ignition and fuel issues. extinguishing the flame, explains Osgerby. The Rio 2016 design team also researched a biofuel alternative to ethanol which did not materialize due to the inconsistent brightness of the flames in harsh weather conditions. The two design teams ultimately opted for a mixture of propane and butane.

While butane gas can be stored at a lower pressure than propane, it requires higher temperatures to convert from a liquid in the canister to a gas, the state in which it is fueled by flame. Liquid propane, on the other hand, evaporates to gas around -40⁰F, so a mixture of 55% propane and 45% butane was chosen to balance safe fuel pressure in the canister with temperature d. lower evaporation.

The Tokyo 2020 torch features a similar fuel cartridge and burner system to its London 2012 counterpart. Courtesy of Tokyo 2020.

Tecosim claims that the burner system itself is very similar to that of a hot air balloon. The liquefied gas is removed from the cartridge with a long pick-up tube that runs the full length of the torch. From there, the fuel is distributed into a stainless steel coil that wraps around the burner at the very top of the torch, just below the base of the flame. Here, the fuel is heated very quickly and converted from a liquid to a gas before being fed to the flame through the burner nozzle.

Finally, the gas is released through a special valve in the burner unit. “The valve has been designed and calibrated to allow exact mixing of gas and air to create the desired highly visible yellow flame,” says Tecosim.

Since the fuel is withdrawn from the tank in liquid form, the flow of fuel needed to sustain the flame is maintained because “the high thermal energy provided by the torch flame allows the liquid to evaporate into a gas, before ‘It doesn’t reach the burner nozzle,’ explains the engineering company.

Although the principle of all gas-powered Olympic torches is the same, significant factors in the design and in the season of the games create specific technical challenges. “As an example, the Torino 2006 Winter Olympic Torch had a mostly solid body design with an enclosed torch head, and the London 2012 Summer Olympic Torch had a heavily perforated body design and an enclosed torch head. burner open”, explains Tecosim. Therefore, each torch system is unique.

Torch test: wind and extreme temperatures

Along with the development of aesthetic and technical prototypes, the torch is subjected to a variety of tests to ensure that the flame can withstand extreme weather conditions, high altitudes and even being dropped during the relay.

In the case of the London 2012 torch, the tests were carried out in the BMW wind tunnel in Munich, explains Osgerby. The torch has been tested in temperatures ranging from 23⁰F to 104⁰F, wind speeds up to 50 miles per hour, various humidities, simulated rain and snow, all at variations in torch angle relative to the airflow in the tunnel. “In support of climatic wind tunnel testing, several hundred hours of torch airflow testing were performed, using a large industrial fan and a fabricated nozzle to increase velocities of airflow”, explains Tecosim.

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Additionally, the torch was dropped from a height of 10 feet onto a concrete floor and tested aloft atop Mount Snowdon, where wind gusts exceeded 50 miles per hour. Tests such as these are typical for torch control.

Mass production of torches

The final step in the long Olympic torch development process is the manufacture of the thousands of torches needed for the torch relay. The manufacturer, like the design, varies from year to year depending on the materials and specifications required.

After the first piece of aluminum was punched with the required 8,000 holes, the London 2012 torch was robotically welded into its final shape. The gold color was applied to the surface at the end of the process. Lee Mawdsley.

In 2002, Coleman, an American outdoor equipment manufacturer, fabricated the torch’s metal components while the glass top was sourced from an overseas supplier, according to Purdy. In 2012, manufacturing logistics were handled by The Premier Group, an engineering company based in Coventry, UK. Each torch faces unique challenges in scaling the torch design – for Salt Lake City the glass top was very fragile, and for London a new laser cutter was obtained in order to cut the 64 million circles needed for the group of 8,000 torches.

“We actually have a new laser cutter, capable of cutting 16 holes per second,” says Osgerby, one of the torch’s designers. The final laser-cut product made its debut during the first leg of the torch relay in May 2012 and made its final appearance at the opening ceremonies 78 days later, officially opening the games with the lighting of the Olympic flame in London and continuing the tradition of its unique predecessors.

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