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Olympic Torch

February 5, 2002

A public radio commentary

Although the Olympic Flame is an ancient tradition - it began at the earliest Olympic Games in Greece, where a sacred flame burned in honor of Zeus - it is now a very media savvy tradition. Television cameras cover the Torch's journey as 11,500 people carry it 13,500 miles across the nation. This created a huge headache for the man who designed this year's Torch. He's Stan Shelton, a mechanical engineering professor from Georgia Tech. Shelton is an expert in combustion, although this is the trickiest problem he's ever dealt with.

The torch must stay lit in hail, rain, high winds, at temperatures as low as twenty below zero. It must blaze brightly when carried by runners, but also when moved by automobile, airplane, train, ship, dog sled, skier, horse-drawn sleigh, snowmobile, ice skaters, and even prairie schooner. Not only must it stay lit, it must also be safe.

In 1956 an Australian runner entered the Melbourne Olympic Stadium carrying a spectacular torch shooting out flames like a huge sparkler. It burned the runner so severely, he had to miss the opening ceremony.

Starting in 1972, at the Munich games, designers moved to an Olympic Torch that is a very sophisticated cigarette lighter. It's fuel is pressurized gas that flows through a small opening.

Stan Shelton, the designer of this year's Torch, found it wasn't as simple as just making a cigarette lighter. The flame for example had to look good on television, even better than it did in the past. The standard butane used in a lighter is a very light blue, not photogenic at all! So, Shelton changed to the gas used by welders; it emits a bright orange flame, and can be made to rise up to twenty inches in the air. Enough for any camera to see.

Beauty was also a criterion in making the torch. Says Shelton, "I have always felt a kinship with artists, and I believe this torch is a great symbol of the marriage of artistic and technical creativity."

This year's torch looks like a fiery icicle. The body is tapered with an antique silver finish and dark-shaded grooves that run from top to bottom. The outer shell is made from aluminum and plated to produce a high-polished chrome finish. The torch is topped with a glass crown, a copper cauldron sits inside from which the Olympic flame rises.

The glass represent winter and nature as well as ice and purity. The polished chrome stands for modern technology, the aged silver the heritage of the West. And the copper represent Utah's history.

In addition to meeting all the criteria of beauty, safety and protecting the flame, Shelton had to meet one other very important condition. 11,500 torches were made, and they had to be made cheaply because every one of the torch bearers had the right to buy the torch they carried.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises