Organisers of the Beijing 2008 Olympics were expecting images of flag-waving well-wishers to accompany the Olympic Torch on its journey around the globe.

Instead, the relay has been accompanied by footage of paramilitary flame attendants wrestling (in a very un-Olympic way) pro-Tibetan protesters to the ground before stuffing them into waiting police vans. Not quite the PR coup the China was hoping for.

In Paris this week, protesters had a win when the flame was extinguished four times by security officers in what’s thought to be the first time the flame has been put out by organisers.

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If protesters elsewhere are hoping to douse the flame, thereby scoring their own PR victory, they’ll need to be creative about it. Following violent scenes in London and Paris, the torch will be protected by tighter security than previously planned. Cities like Canberra are talking about curtailing the torch’s tour, giving protesters fewer chances to embarrass Games organisers.

And then there is the torch itself. Speaking to Crikey on the condition anonymity, a source close to a previous Olympic Games revealed that the torch is built to strict guidelines. Keeping the flame alight is a central concern.

“There were standards that the flame had to comply with. If memory serves, the

flame had to withstand 65 km/h winds, and we wind tunnel tested it to ensure compliance,” Crikey was told.

“It has to withstand torrential rain, so we tested it with hoses. It has to withstand temperature differentials in alpine regions and the tropics. And it has to perform to a specific burn time, and that takes into account different altitudes, because the gas will run for different lengths of time depending on how far above sea level you are.”

But even that won’t stop it from going out. In past games, “it still has gone out once or twice from memory. One was when Helen Clark had it in New Zealand. But she was the only one I can remember who held the torch backwards.”

Further, other design specs include the flame’s color and illumination, and its visibility from a distance. There’s more than one back-up flame carried in miners’ lamps in the support vehicle.

And finally, the sophistication of the burning mechanism actively protects the flame.

“Although I haven’t seen the design of the Chinese torch, it’s not just a little burner you might find in a gas stove. It’s likely to be a very advanced combustion chamber that catches and recirculates its heat and can reignite itself.

“It’s not a very easy thing to put out.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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