Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Protecting the Flame Behind a Chain-Link Fence

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

Protecting the Flame Behind a Chain-Link Fence

Article excerpt

   When you are lucky enough to be inside the Olympic bubble, the
   Games can often seem about finding the best hockey tickets, getting
   into the cool parties to hang with the athletes and celebs or just
   getting a chance to watch your friends break their personal records
   for ingesting champagne and beer over 17 days. (2)


On February 12, 2010, her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaelle Jean, the Governor General of Canada, officially opened the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia. Millions of Canadians tuned-in to watch the elaborate ceremony and to see Canadian athletic heroes light the Olympic cauldron. After months of speculation and rumours, it was Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky who ignited the flame that would burn throughout the seventeen-day sporting extravaganza. Thousands lined the rain-slicked streets, cheering as Gretzky travelled via pick-up truck from BC Place to the water's edge of Coal Harbour to the Olympic cauldron. The rain had not dampened the spirits of Olympic supporters as they relished in the glow of the flame that had been ignited in Olympia, Greece over one hundred days earlier.

Yet the following morning, Olympic tourists and Canadian citizens awoke to a surprising development. Overnight, a chain-link fence with a banner had been erected around the Olympic cauldron. Vancouver Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (VANOC) officials claimed that they needed to protect the structure from potential vandals. Despite the fact that VANOC officials had long argued that the flame, which had travelled across the entire nation, symbolized peace and unity, the flame was now inaccessible to the general population. One spectator argued, "It's horrible that local people paid for the Olympics but can't approach the flame." (3)

Yet not everyone was prevented from experiencing the flame without an obstruction before them. Members of the Olympic Family and accredited media personnel freely roamed within the barrier. They, unlike the rest of the general population were not considered a 'threat' to the sacred flame. Yet for everyone else in Vancouver, this fence represented more than the protection of the flame from those who would do it harm; it symbolized that not everyone is welcome within the inner sanctums of the Olympic Movement.

Olympic Symbolism

The modern Olympic Games have been built on a foundation of symbolism. (4) From its inception in 1894 at the Sorbonne Conference in Paris, symbols were interconnected to the Games to make connections to the past that would trigger a sense of nostalgia, importance, and history. It was not by chance that Baron Pierre de Coubertin chose to play the Olympic Hymn during the conference; he knew the importance of creating and utilizing symbols to foster human experiences. So deep was his belief in the importance of symbols, that in 1924, the Baron criticized the organizer of the 1920 Games in Antwerp, Belgium because of its lack of "powerful symbolism." (5)

Throughout history, the gatekeepers and architects of the Olympic Movement have cultivated symbols that evoke intense meanings to people throughout the world. The most recognizable of these symbols includes the Olympic rings, medal ceremonies (including the playing of national anthems), and the Olympic flame. As Blumer has suggested, humans act towards things on the basis of the meanings that these things have for them. (6) People's social interactions related to these and other Olympic symbols have helped to foster their passionate feelings about the Olympic Games. These feelings are further intensified by the marketing tools of the IOC, local organizing committees, sponsors, and the media. The Olympic flame has come to be one of the strongest symbols that people relate to within the Olympic Movement, and VANOC readily used the flame to connect with Canadian citizens.

The Olympic Flame

The Olympic flame has become one of the central symbols associated with the Olympic Games:

   Of all the ceremonial rites surrounding an Olympic festival, the
   lighting of the sacred flame that consecrates all the events that
   will unfold over the following two weeks is perhaps the epitome. … 
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