Does Lighting the Olympic Flame Involve Setting Fire to a Piece of 35mm Film?


Every two years, the lighting of the Olympic Flame amidst the ruins of the Temple of Hera is a pretty interesting performance. The torch is lit from the light of the Sun, using a parabolic mirror to focus the Sun’s rays on the fuel in the torch and set it ablaze… but what exactly is that fuel? By the looks of it, at least a small part is a piece of 35mm film.

This was pointed out to us by photographer Tom Waugh, who noticed it while watching the official lighting of the Sochi Olympic flame on television. When the camera zoomed in to the torch being lit, he was very surprised to see what looked like film being used as the accelerant.

The ceremony itself involves actresses dressed as priestesses of the Temple of Hera. They go through a whole performance and invocation, after which the high priestess lights the flame using the Sun, passing it to another priestess holding a fire pot who, ultimately, uses it to light the first runner’s torch.

A bit of research on the Internet yields no information about film being used, but if you look up footage of the ceremony it looks like a piece of 35mm has been helping get the flame going for a while now. And, in a way, it makes sense: nitrate-based cellulose film is extremely flammable after all.

Then again, we’re pretty sure (like 99%) the Greeks didn’t have any type of 35mm film at their disposal back in the day. Take a look at the footage for yourself and let us know what you think in the comments down below, and if you want to see the whole 27-minute ceremony, you can do so here.

  • ietion

    Confirmed from greek sources, it is indeed ‘silent movie’ film purchased from the US, because it is extremely flamable

  • mikemike9

    The whole spectacle has very little to do with ancient Greece; it’s a lot more to do with Hitler.

  • Notanut

    It’s probably someone getting rid of evidence.

  • harumph

    It’s the only existing print of the long lost London After Midnight.

  • Trenton Kakazu

    you can see images on the native at 0:06. isnt there high res images? you can hear cams going off in the bg.

  • Lauren

    Er…after the 1st runner hand-off…did the 2nd one forget the olive branch? The second runner took off without taking the olive branch! Was that supposed to happen?

  • Carl Meyer

    Wrong person but I’m sure you know it, anyway modern torch relay has more in common with sports than ancient theft of the fire.

  • daniel Ballard

    I don’t know what film it is this time. But next time I’m confident it will be from a film print of 5th Estate.

  • Kenneth Clacher

    The film used must be at least 65 years old ! nitrate film was phased out in approx 1948 when kodak started introducing safety film for the professional market…IE cinema distribution. Surprised the health and safety brigade allow this to happen as even the fumes of burning nitrate film , is toxic.

  • Kenneth Clacher

    BTW ietion, you did have sound on film, way back then on nitrate film stock.

  • jrconner

    I suspect the film is there to hold in place the flammable material and to hold sparks within the torch. Modern acetate or polyester film would suffice for that.

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  • a photo curator

    nonsense, nitrate film has a very low and predicable ignition point, so it makes perfect sense to use it as an flame source in a sun-powered mirror. It will ignite dramatically, yet can be safely handled at normal temps.