Yuna Kim, South Korea’s popular figure skating gold medallist, lit the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 2018 winter games in Pyeongchang. The event was as curious as Kim was serene. Skating to a mound of icicles, she touched these with an Olympic torch and up spiralled a bizarre column of golden rings. This theatrical deus ex machina mounted up to what looked like a giant onggi – a traditional Korean cooking pot – and set this latest in a long line of Olympic cauldrons triumphantly ablaze.
When the flame was lit a dozen doves were barbecued in front of millions of viewers
Some observers found this spectacle a thing of wonder. There were those in the foreign press and social media who said it was comically phallic. Others thought it ineffably funny. Whatever one’s take on this spellbinding ritual, there is little doubt that the lighting of the Olympic cauldron has become a highly theatrical and even pantomime element in the opening ceremonies of summer and winter games.
As in any stage show, no matter how well rehearsed, things can, of course, go spectacularly wrong. The opening ceremony of the 1988 Summer Olympics witnessed young Korean athletes being lifted on a steel ring around a pole towards a high-perched cauldron. Earlier, doves had been released above the new Jasmil Olympic Stadium. They chose to settle on the rim of the cauldron. When the flame was lit, a dozen doves were barbecued in front of millions of television viewers worldwide.
Lighting the way
Horrific though this was, Olympic organisers have shown little restraint since Seoul. In 1992, the cauldron of the Barcelona summer games was lit, or so it seemed, by a flaming arrow shot by the Paralympic archer Antonio Robello. In fact, the cauldron was lit at the press of a button. After all, what if the arrow had missed its target, a Dalí-esque like affair mounted on the outside of the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys? This was a cauldron that looked like a ship’s rudder. Or was it a fish held upside down?
The Beijing 2008 summer games saw Li Ning, the veteran gold medal-winning gymnast, lifted on wires to the top of the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Once there, Li ran as if on air over and around what appeared to be a giant Chinese scroll leading to the base of a towering cauldron that, dutifully, burst into flames.
How could the organisers of the 2012 London Olympics beat this? “When we were thinking about the cauldron”, the designer Thomas Heatherwick told The Telegraph, “we were aware that cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics had happened and we felt we should not try to be even bigger than the last ones. It didn’t feel enough to just design a different shape of bowl on a stick so we were trying to rethink it fundamentally.”
The result was an Olympic cauldron unlike any other. Two hundred and four copper plates shaped like petals, one for each of the competing nations, rose from the horizontal when the flame was lit by seven young athletes to form a stylised burning bush low down in the London stadium. Although complex, the Heatherwick cauldron resolved into a haunting, elemental spectacle capturing something of the near sacred spirit of the Olympic flame as it had first been imagined.
The Nazis assumed every Olympics would be in Germany – after they won the war
The Olympic Games, held in Olympia, Greece, from the8th Century BC to the 4th Century AD, were revived in 1896 when the opening ceremony was held in the Panathenaic Stadium, Athens, newly renovated by the architect Anastasios Metaxas, who, trained in Dresden, went on to win silver and bronze Olympic medals for shooting. In Athens, Mataxos had executed designs for the stadium made by the German-born, Greek-national architect Ernst Ziller, whose works include the National Theatre of Greece and the Presidential Palace in Athens.
Darkness behind the light
The German connection was to be highly significant. In awe of the achievement of these ‘Aryans’, Adolf Hitler wished to recreate the wonders of Ancient Greece – and of Rome, too – on an epic scale to represent the cultural aspirations of his Third Reich. Although the Olympic flame first blazed from a cauldron in Amsterdam in 1928, it was Hitler and his colleagues who transformed the lighting ceremony into the stuff of cultural sorcery.
Carl Diem, athlete turned sports administrator and a political advisor to Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, is largely credited with the idea of the Olympic torch relay. For the Berlin summer games in 1936, an Olympic torch would be borne aloft by relays of athletes across six national borders from Olympia to Berlin’s ambitious new Olympiastadion designed by Werner March.
Several months before the opening of the Berlin games, an actress standing in for a Greek priestess lit the flame among the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia. She did this using the rays of the sun reflected from a Zeiss parabolic mirror. The magnesium-burning Krupp torch was then taken up by the first of some three thousand runners. The last in the chain was Fritz Schilgen, an electrical engineer, who, chosen and filmed by Leni Riefenstahl for her epic documentary Olympia(1938) ran into a swastika-lined and sieg-heiling Olympiastadion where he ignited the simple if monumental cauldron that can still be seen there today.
Hitler’s plan was for Albert Speer to design and build a much larger 405,000-seat venue in Nuremberg, based, in spirit more than practice, on Olympia’s Panathenaic stadium. Due for completion in 1940, this was to be home for all future Olympic games. Following a German victory in World War Two, all nations would send their athletes to Berlin for at least the next 1,000 years.
As it turns out, St Moritz, Switzerland, hosted the first post-war winter Olympics in January 1948 with the summer Olympics following in London. The London cauldron was little different from its German predecessor. It was only in the Helsinki 1952 Olympics that a modern, yet elemental, cauldron made its debut. Here, Paavo Nurmi, the legendary Finnish long distance runner, ignited a simple bowl supported on five slender legs.
Since then, perhaps the most successful Olympic cauldrons have been simple and restrained, reflecting the taut, lithe nature of athletics and the timeless appeal of these games. Tokyo featured a simple cauldron shaped like an upturned bell from a Shinto shrine in 1964. Montreal showed a minimalist steel bowl on the slimmest steel pole in 1976, and, while more ambitious in formal design terms, the tall cauldron of the 2006 Olympics in Turin, resembling a cross between an industrial chimney and a Jewish havdalah candle, was fundamentally simple, too.
The momentum, though, remains in favour of circus-like spectacle. Visual restraint is not the order of the 21st Century Olympic day. There have, however, been moments when the bearer of the flame has outshone the most ambitious Olympic cauldron. Muhammad Ali, who won a gold medal for boxing in the 1960 Rome Olympics, lit the flame at the 1996 Atlanta games. Parkinson’s syndrome made him shake. It took sheer strength of will for the world-feted boxer to light the fuse that sent a flaming ball up into the red and gold cauldron high above him. It was a truly Olympian moment.
If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.