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Invisible flame: burning issue of London Games

Published:Sunday | July 29, 2012 | 12:00 AM
The Olympic flame is lit during the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Summer Games at the Olympic Stadium in London. - AP


The Olympic flame is nowhere to be seen. The enduring image of the Summer and Winter Games, lit Friday night at the climax of the opening ceremony, is out of sight from the throngs of fans who hoped to catch an inspiring glimpse, or take the photo of a lifetime.

The cauldron sits low in the centre of Olympic Stadium in London, invisible from the outside. It will be moved today to a corner and visible in person only to fans lucky enough to have tickets to track and field, which starts Friday.

Until then, if you want to see the Olympic flame, you'll have to settle for a beauty shot on television, where it looks from above like a small, distant campfire, or the pilot light under the eye of a giant stove.

"It's unfortunate," said John Morrissey, who travelled to London on a day trip from Ireland yesterday, the first day of competition. "I didn't realise you couldn't see it. I was going to walk around until I saw it. It seems quite poorly thought out."

"That could have been made more user-friendly," said Lorraine Payne, an airline worker from London.

The lighting was one of the high points of the opening ceremony. Seven teenage athletes, meant to represent the next generation of British sports, touched flaming torches to 205 petal-shaped copper stems that spread into a ring of fire.

Then the flames rose and converged, as if into an elegant, blazing flower. Fireworks erupted over the stadium, Paul McCartney led a singalong of Hey Jude, and London was off to a feel-good start to its Games.

Just maybe a darker one than everyone expected.

The designer of the cauldron, Thomas Heatherwick, offered an artistic defence: "It's almost that the stadium represents some kind of temple and it's the flame that sits in the heart of that temple.

"We were aware that cauldrons have been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics has happened," he said.

Indeed, Beijing was a tough flame to follow. The Summer Games in 2008 featured a mammoth, spiralling cauldron attached to the inner roof of the stadium, so big that it dwarfed the wire-suspended gymnast who spacewalked around the rim to light it.

At the last Winter Games, in Vancouver in 2010, there was an outcry when organisers put the cauldron behind an unsightly chain-link fence along the harbour, touching off a "free the flame" movement.

Organisers ultimately ceded to public demand and opened up a rooftop promenade that allowed an elevated, unobstructed view for the thousands of people who came to the site every day to take photos.

This isn't the first time the Olympic flame has been kept inside a stadium in London. In fact, designers said they wanted to replicate the 1948 Olympics in London, when the cauldron was placed in a corner of Wembley Stadium.

"With the technology we now have that didn't exist at the time, it can be shared with everyone in the park with screens," Heatherwick said. "We felt that sharing it with the screens reinforces the intimacy."

Before arriving for the opening ceremony, the flame had travelled across the UK in a 70-day torch relay covering 8,000 miles. Organisers said that public exposure - 15 million Britons have seen it - was more important than showing it off in a park.

The design and location of the cauldron were among the most closely guarded secrets of the Games. The plans were devised two years ago with opening ceremony director Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning film-maker.

The London Olympic planners started with the assumption that the cauldron should be on top of the stadium, sticking up like the antenna on a cellphone, Heatherwick said.

But it dawned on them that the stadium was almost a perfect circle, he said, "and that the most powerful spot in the whole of that stadium is the very, very centre."

For now, the flame isn't completely in the dark. Images are being projected on big screens around Olympic Park, the complex of venues in the East End of London. Ever the civic booster, Mayor Boris Johnson said everyone should relax.