Olympic Design: Torches & Cauldrons

SI.com has enlisted the help of the bloggers behind Canadian Design Resource to author a series of posts on the design spirit of their country’s three Olympic Games: Montreal 1976, Calgary 1988, and Vancouver 2010. Today, CDR’s Michael Erdmann, Todd Falkowsky and Greg Ball take a look at Canada’s Olympic torches:

Montreal 1976 Olympic Torch
Michel Dallaire, Graphics and Design Directorate, 1975

Montreal Torch


The organizers of the Montreal Games aimed to “create opening and closing ceremonies that would be original in their modernism and imposing in their traditionalism.” This balance of old and new actually began well before the opening ceremonies, with the journey of the Olympic Flame. Highlighting the technology of the day, the flame was transported from Greece to Ottawa via heat sensors, satellite signals and a laser beam, which converted the signals back to a flame. From Ottawa, the flame traveled directly to Montreal (about 200km, or 124 miles), making it one of the shortest torch relays in Olympic history.

The torch itself also blended modern technologies with Olympic tradition; fueled by super-activated olive oil (olive oil, nitropropane, and heptane contained in a hydrophollic cotton cartridge), its simple lines recall the resinous wooden torches of antiquity.

Montreal 1976 Olympic Cauldron
Graphics and Design Directorate, COJO, 1976


Sandra Henderson of Toronto and Stéphane Préfontaine of Montréal -- both 15 years old – light the Olympic Cauldron during the 1976 Opening Ceremonies. (©IOC Olympic Museum Collection)

Carrying on the style established by the graphic design program, Montreal’s Olympic cauldron was pared down and elegant — emphasizing the Flame itself. What you can’t see in this image is that Henderson and Préfontaine were standing on a large platform in order to reach the cauldron, which was about 6m (20 feet) tall.

Calgary 1988 Olympic Torch & Uniform
OCO, 1987

Calgary Torch

(Eric Scott Henderson: http://www.flickr.com/photos/striderv/)

In contrast to Montreal, Canada’s first winter games began with an 88-day, 18,000-kilometer relay — at the time, the longest in Olympic history. The actual torch design, a replica of the Calgary Tower (hardly an architectural standout but definitely a city symbol), featured laser-engraved pictograms, the Olympic motto (Citius Altius Fortius), the words “XV Olympic Winter Games Calgary Alberta Canada 1988,” and the excellent games emblem.

Calgary 1976 Olympic Cauldron
OCO, 1987


(©IOC Olympic Museum Collection)

Based on the same basic pedestal form, Calgary’s Olympic cauldron was significantly larger than Montreal’s, but arguably lacked the elegance. Twelve-year-old torchbearer Robyn Perry lit the cauldron as it was slowly raised out of a platform in MacMahon Stadium. Apparently, there were no problems with the hydraulics back in ‘88.

Vancouver 2010 Olympic Torch & Uniform
Torch: Bombardier/VANOC, 2009
Uniform: Vivienne Lu and Tu Ly, Hudson’s Bay Company/VANOC, 2009

Vancouver Torch


Building on the precedent set in Calgary, the Vancouver Games made history with the longest domestic torch relay in Olympic history. Runners were outfitted in mostly white uniforms, with highlight colours pulled from the official Vancouver 2010 color palette and completed with red mittens, which have become the surprise hit of the Games so far.

Formally, Vancouver’s torch is inspired by the “cool, crisp and modern lines that are left behind in the snow and ice from winter sports” and sticks pretty close to the waveforms used throughout the 2010 graphic identity. Some critics have likened the design to a gigantic joint, but that’s a stretch — if you’re rolling something that looks and burns like this, we suggest that you need more practice.

Vancouver 2010 Olympic Cauldron
VANOC, 2010


(Christine Rondeau - http://www.flickr.com/photos/crondeau/)


(The view from underneath the cauldron: http://thedarkerside.to/)


View from behind the fence. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/stv)

In order to manage the logistics of the first indoor opening ceremonies, Vancouver needed two Olympic cauldrons. The first cauldron was used during the official ceremonies inside BC Place, while the second (permanent) cauldron sits on Vancouver’s waterfront.

Due to a now infamous hydraulics malfunction during the opening ceremonies, only three of the four “arms” that surround the temporary cauldron were raised into position. Unfortunately, this undermined what seems to be the core logic of the design: allowing the cauldron to be lit by four torchbearers at once. Too bad, because it’s a lovely sentiment and probably the most compelling aspect of the design.

Free of technical glitches, the waterfront cauldron seems to be a big hit with Olympic spectators, though it’s far from perfect. Certainly, the scale of the design is impressive and the five-flame concept unique, but the resulting form is clumsy and feels out of step with the look of these Games. Up close, the details seem unconsidered and the textured metal work looks cheap — like a tin-foil covered set from a low budget sci-fi movie (given Vancouver’s lively film industry, don’t be surprised if it ends up as exactly that).

Compounding the shortcomings of the design itself, VANOC neglected the cauldron’s role as a major tourist attraction and photo op. In order to maintain security around the cauldron and nearby media center, the Vancouver organizers surrounded the entire site with a chain-link fence, effectively preventing (non-VIP) visitors from getting a picture with the flame. Flooded with complaints, VANOC finally responded by moving the fence closer on Tuesday night, creating an opening for photos and providing an elevated platform for a better view. But there is still a fence.

(Coming up tomorrow from Canadian Design Resource: A look at the official medals of Canada’s Olympic Games. Yesterday, they covered Canada’s posters.)

  • Published On Feb. 17, 2010 by lukewinn
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