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Tech Note: The Olympic Torch and Cauldron of the 2012 Summer Games

We are into the second week of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, and as a friend declared, “the actual Olympics began on Friday, August 3rd  – track and field sporting events”.  OK, that’s his opinion.

I enjoyed the Opening Ceremony that was aired on Friday, July 27, 2012.  There were many high points for this signature event including the active participation of the Queen and her beloved Corgy dogs. I especially liked the completion of the Olympic torch relay and the lighting of the cauldron for this summer’s games. Technical notes regarding the torch and the cauldron are the subject of this post.


The open burning flame at the games dates back to the Ancient Greeks. Considered to be a divine element, the Greeks maintained perpetual fires in front of their most important temples. This was also true for the sanctuary of Olympia, where the Ancient Olympic Games took place.

For the modern Olympic games, a torch relay precedes the arrival of the flame at its final destination: the Olympic stadium in the host city. When the flame finally arrives at its destination, the final torch bearer runs into the stadium to light the Olympic cauldron. The flame remains lit for the duration of the Games and is extinguished only at the Closing Ceremony. [Ref 1]

In keeping with the ceremonies, the Olympic flame began its journey from Ancient Olympia, Greece on May 10, 2012, exchanged hands with 8,000 torch bearers and passed a number of notable British landmarks before reaching the Olympic stadium in London on July 27, 2012.

2012 Torch Design

According to the London Telegraph [Ref. 2], over 600 proposals were submitted for the prestigious honor of designing the 2012 Olympic torch. The design of Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby was selected and developed in their London studios. A perforated design – with 8,000 holes – provided a transparent appearance while preventing heat from conductively flowing down the handle of the carrier and burning the torch bearer.

Torch bearer Jay Kamiraz, left, hands over to Scott Moorhouse as Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall watch outside the MENCAP Community Centre in Tottenham, north London on Wednesday, July 25, 2012.[ Paul Hackett / WPA Pool via Getty Images]

According to the designers, “The holes represent the number of people who will take part in the relay.” The torch is also triangular in shape – a first for the Olympics. Previous versions have been cylindrical.  The material for the inner and outer skin is aluminum alloy. It is modern, corrosion and heat resistant, and most importantly, light. Despite its height the torch was designed to be easy to carry for the younger bearers, the whole thing weighing only 800 grams.

Cauldron Design

Similar to the Olympic Torch, the lighting of the cauldron is the apex of the Opening Ceremony. The London designer, Thomas Heatherwick, was given the project of creating the cauldron for the Summer Games.

Lighting of the 2012 Summer Olympic Cauldron (Source: DEZeen Magazine)

The 8.5-metre-tall cauldron, which was crafted in a workshop in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, was intended to stand apart from the fiery troughs that had come before it. This special project was given the nickname “Betty”. In addition to being the name of the executive producer’s dog, a project of this magnitude would also contain the secretive nature of the activities and event surrounding the design and lighting ceremonies.

“We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, and fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn’t try to be even bigger than the last ones,” he said. Betty’s design, Heatherwick added, had also allowed the organizers to stress the diverse but united spirit of the Games. [Ref 3]

2012 Summer Olympics Cauldron – Raising the Petals

In interview with DE-Zeen Magazine [Ref 4], Heatherwick talked about not just designing the cauldron as a thing or an object, but designing for the public moment when more than half the world could be watching.  Unveiled as the climax of the Opening Ceremony, the cauldron comprises 204 copper petals that were carried into the stadium by competing teams and assembled on radiating poles, before being raised in concentric waves to meet as one flame, and form a dandelion of flame. And what a moment that was!

After the games the cauldron will be dismantled and each competing country will take home one of the petals.

2012 Olympic Cauldron (fully assembled, Source: Leon Neal, AFP, Getty Images)

Having bloomed so brightly and so perfectly, she will lose her blackened petals as, one by one, they will be dismantled and sent home with each competing country that carried them into the stadium on the night of the Opening Ceremonies.

Replicas of the torch and model-sized cauldrons are selling briskly along with other souvenirs and memorabilia from the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.


  1. Fact Sheet: The Olympic Torch Relay, Update – October 2011, http://www.olympic.org/Documents/Reference_documents_Factsheets/The_Olympic_Torch_relay.pdf
  2. London 2012 Olympics: torch designers Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby explain the aspect of the iconic object, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/olympics/torch-relay/9270187/London-2012-Olympics-torch-designers-Edward-Barber-and-Jay-Osgerby-explain-the-aspect-of-the-iconic-object.html
  3. Betty the Olympic cauldron moves away from centre, Sam Jones, July 29, 2012,  http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/jul/29/betty-cauldron-olympic-stadium
  4. 2012 Olympic Cauldron, http://www.dezeen.com/2012/07/31/london-2012-olympic-cauldron-by-thomas-heatherwick-model-and-drawings/

About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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