Philip Barker

Three months from now, the Cauldron will be alight in Beijing. Until then, the Flame is set to be exhibited around China but the formal Torch Relay is not scheduled until February 2.

In total, 1,200 bearers are expected to carry the Flame over three days in the Beijing, Yanqing and Zhangjiakou competition but it is still set to be one of the shortest domestic Torch Relays at any Olympics.

The first Winter Olympic Torch Relay was even shorter. It was introduced for the Oslo Games in 1952 and purists do not even consider it an "Olympic" Flame.

This is because it was lit in the remote village of Morgedal in Telemark. The official report of the 1952 Games related how Morgedal "was regarded everywhere in Norway as the cradle of ski jumping and slalom skiing."

The idea for the Torch Relay came from a local teacher called Olav Bjaaland who proposed "a cross country ski relay from Morgedal to Oslo to light the fire at Bislett."

His suggestion met with "general approval."

International Olympic Committee President Johannes Sigfrid Edstrom added his blessing.

"This was no Olympic Flame being carried from Morgedal to Oslo, but a Torch greeting from the cradle of modern skiing," organisers insisted.

The Flame was to be lit at the "modest" woodland cottage of Sondre Norheim, considered the father of modern skiing. This was in Øverbø, a short distance from Morgedal.

It was intended that the arrival of the Flame in Oslo should "mark a definite and festive introduction to the Games."

The Torches were made of a brass and steel alloy. The handle was 22 centimetres long and each was inscribed with the Olympic Rings and an arrow indicating the journey from Morgedal to Oslo. 

Only 95 were made, which makes them amongst the rarest and one fetched $95,000 (£70,000/€82,300) at auction a few years ago.

The Flame for the first Winter Olympic Torch Relay was lit at the Bislett Stadion in Oslo in 1952 ©Philip Barker
The Flame for the first Winter Olympic Torch Relay was lit at the Bislett Stadion in Oslo in 1952 ©Philip Barker

A special fuel ensured "a continuous fire regardless of wind and precipitation."

The Flame was not lit by the rays of the sun, but kindled from the fireplace at the cottage by 79-year-old Olav Bjaaland, the sole surviving member of Roald Amundsen’s historic 1911 South Pole expedition. Sitting next to him at the fireplace was 10-year-old Olav Tveiten.

Bjaaland passed the Flame to Øystein Strondi, a leading sports official in Morgedal. He in turn set the Relay in motion by handing the Torch to the first skier Olav Hemmestveit, the son of another distinguished Morgedal skier.

The Relay followed the route taken by skiers from the area when they had taken part in a competition in Oslo almost a century before.

Two days later, the Torch arrived in Oslo, Eigil Nansen, the grandson of another explorer, Fridtjof Nansen, ignited the Cauldron at the Bislett Stadium.

In 1956, the Winter Games were held in the Italian resort of Cortina D’Ampezzo. The journey of the Flame was again relatively short. This time it was kindled at the Capitol in Rome, in an altar sent from Olympia in Greece.

The Fedeli di Vitorchiano ceremonial guard escorted a footman who carried the Flame to a balcony overlooking the Piazza del Campidoglio. It was greeted with a fanfare of trumpets and a symbolic release of doves. 

Clemente Cardinal Clemente Micara, Vicar General of Rome, offered a blessing before Mayor Salvatore Rebecchini lit the first Torch. 

Adolfo Consolini, the 1948 Olympic discus champion in 1948, wore a tracksuit to carry it across the piazza as flags of the competing nations were unfurled.

"’Wild applause broke out as Consolini descended," reports said. 

He passed young gymnasts and members of the Alpine patrol, skis at the ready. Waiting to greet him was Giuseppe ‘Pino’ Dordoni, 1952 gold medallist in the 50 kilometre walk.

"Of all the honours I had received in sport, this was the greatest," Dordoni said. 

Guido Caroli, right, the final Torch bearer of the Relay for the 1956 Winter Olympics, was left shaken that tripping over a television camera cable - although the Flame did stay alight despite his stumble ©Getty Images
Guido Caroli, right, the final Torch bearer of the Relay for the 1956 Winter Olympics, was left shaken that tripping over a television camera cable - although the Flame did stay alight despite his stumble ©Getty Images

He stood holding the Torch as a car carried him past the Colosseum and along the Appian way towards the airport, accompanied by an escort of 100 sportsmen on motorcycles and scooters in bright winter sunshine.

At the airport, he carried the Flame through a guard of honour. The flight to Venice was delayed by fog over the lagoon. As a precaution, organisers had sent a reserve Flame by car but throughout the Relay this was used only once.

In Venice, a ceremony in St Mark's Square featured skier Adriano Guarnieri, Italy’s flag bearer 20 years earlier at the 1936 Winter Olympics. The Flame was also taken along the Grand Canal in a procession of gondolas.

As the Flame approached Cortina, 1952 men’s downhill champion Zeno Colo took it down the slopes. His progress was marked by a series of red, white and green rockets. The Flame was taken through cheering crowds into the stadium where speed skater Guido Caroli was the final Torchbearer. 

Unfortunately, he tripped over a cable connected to a television camera. He did not permit the Flame to go out and soon regained his feet, but afterwards, still shaken, he told reporters: "I feel so ashamed."

When the Californian resort of Squaw Valley was chosen to host the 1960 Games, they appointed the film producer Walt Disney to oversee pageantry and ceremonies including the Torch Relay.

In November 1959 "a spectacular round the world journey" was announced in the official Squaw Valley bulletin.

"The Torch will be brought from Olympia, Greece, by jet airliner, then run to the Los Angeles Coliseum, site of the 1932 Olympic Games, before making its journey, by foot, through key California cities, including San Francisco and Sacramento."

Ultimately, it was not lit in Greece, but came instead from Morgedal.

IOC President Avery Brundage cabled Olympic Chancellor Otto Mayer in Lausanne to find out what had gone wrong and suggested that the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) "had refused to light the Sacred Flame at Olympia, and to assure its transport to Athens airport."

Mayer discovered that Squaw Valley organisers had only contacted HOC very late in the day and had not provided the Torches which were to be used. Around 350 would have been needed for the journey through Greece.

Organising Committee President Prentis Cobb Hale wanted to use a helicopter, but was told: "We in Greece still respect time honoured traditions."

Paraskevi Ladopoulou enters the Panathenaic Stadium with the Torch during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Flame Handover Ceremony ©Getty Images
Paraskevi Ladopoulou enters the Panathenaic Stadium with the Torch during the Beijing 2022 Olympic Flame Handover Ceremony ©Getty Images

In a Lausanne newspaper, Swiss journalist Frederic Schlatter sarcastically observed: 'In this case, it is infinitely easier to order the sun to rise in Walt Disney's films than to make the sun shine in Olympia during the Winter!'

The official Olympic Review, edited by Olympic Chancellor Otto Mayer later asked: "What caused the Flame for Squaw Valley to be lighted in Norway instead of Olympia?"

"When one takes into consideration the months required for the organising in preparation of this procedure, one can readily understand why the Greeks did not want to venture in so hazardous an adventure, just a few days before the Opening Ceremony," Mayer concluded.

The Flame was therefore lit in Norway, but Torches still bore the inscription "Olympia to Squaw Valley." There had been no time to change it.

At precisely 10 o’clock on the last day of January 1960, Olav Nordskog, a young skier, sat alongside 80-year-old ski veteran and Royal Cup winner Eivind Donstad as he kindled the Flame in the fire at Norheim’s cottage.

This was taken by a team of 11 skiers to the Norheim Memorial in Morgedal where it was greeted by a huge crowd including many children waving Norwegian flags.

Newspapers described the event as "a dignified and beautiful Ceremony".

This time the journey to Oslo was made predominantly by car. That afternoon, the Flame was received by King Olav V of Norway during a ski jumping event at Vikkollen.

In the evening, it set out from Fornebu Airport for California.

When it arrived in Los Angeles, double Olympic shot put champion Parry O’Brien was there to meet it. Watched by Los Angeles Mayor Norris Poulson, O’Brien handed a Torch to young athlete Bruce Best, the first of 600 school athletes to carry it to Squaw Valley, where it burned near a Tower of the Nations.

The 1960 Torches remain amongst the most collectable. A few years ago, one was auctioned for $215,000 (£159,000/€186,000).

In 1964, a Flame authentically lit in Olympia did burn for the Innsbruck Winter Games. It was lit a week before the Games but flown to Vienna. There was no familiar Relay as such. 

The Flame was eventually lit by skier Josl Rieder and he kept the Torch after the Ceremony. An extensive investigation by Austrian historian Gerhard Siegl suggested that fewer than ten Torches may have been made for Innsbruck, although replicas were later made and documentation is inconclusive.

The Torches of Beijing 2022 may well acquire a similar scarcity value.