The 2008 torch relay has been well attended by pro-Tibetan protesters and other malcontents who are quick to point out the hypocrisy of China, a heavyweight abuser of human rights, hosting an event which talks about freedom, goodwill, and a respect for universal ethical principles. Is this the most controversial relay in history?

Yes, comfortably, though the 2008 fiasco has reminded onlookers of the origins of the Olympic Torch Relay – the 1938 Berlin Olympics. The Times Online reports:

The relay, captured in Leni Riefenstahl’s film, “Olympia”, was part of the Nazi propaganda machine’s attempt to add myth and mystique to Adolf Hitler’s regime. Hitler saw the link with the ancient Games as the perfect way to illustrate his belief that classical Greece was an Aryan forerunner of the modern German Reich.

When the flame was extinguished in Paris by officials, it was relit by a flame carried in lanterns that were lit in Athens. So if it’s wrong to use matches or a lighter to reignite the Olympic Torch in Paris, how do they light the flame in Athens?

No matches or lighters here either. No lesser authority on fire than the sun is entrusted with lighting the Olympic flame in Athens. A parabolic mirror focusses the sun’s rays on a torch held by a Greek actress dressed as a ceremonial priestess from the Temple of Hera. When the flames ignites it’s carried in a fire pot to an altar in the Olympic stadium, where the Olympic Torch is lit before beginning its journey. (Incidentally, the Olympic cauldron was relit with a lighter by an official at the Montreal games following a fierce storm. When it was discovered that unsanctioned fire was used to relight the cauldron, organisers extinguished it and relit it with Olympic fire.)

Has the Olympic Flame ever been converted to a electronic impulse, beamed into space before being retransmitted back to earth via satellite to light the Olympic cauldron?

Yes. In 1976 for the Montreal, Canada summer Olympics. The flame-beam travelled from Athens to a satellite and then back down to Montreal. There were no problems with protesters, nor were there any feelgood images of kids waving flags through iron barricades as aging gold medalists shuffled past. The torch was also sent into space in 2000 on the Space Shuttle Atlantis ahead of the Sydney Games, but, disappointingly for some, it was never converted into an electronic impulse and beamed anywhere. For 2008, perhaps they could have emailed the flame from Athens to Beijing. Might have saved some trouble.

The Chinese have sent flame attendants to shepherd the torch around the globe. Were they really picked from a paramilitary force which specialises in internal security?

Apparently so. Don’t be fooled by their unthreatening blue tracksuits. According to The Age, the flame attendants are “elite members of the paramilitary units used to crush dissent in Tibet,” which is both a cruel irony and a handy bit of product placement should any of China’s trading partners be looking for help with crushing any internal security problems of their own. The IOC says host nations have the right to escort the torch around the globe, but Australian authorities have their own ideas. Kevin Rudd has made it clear he will use his own paramilitary forces to crush any dissent here.

How is Ron Clarke’s arm?

Good thanks. Much better. Almost completely healed. After all, the incident was 52 years ago. And modern torches are much safer than the one Ron carried into the MCG for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. The Beijing 2008 torch burns on propane, which produces only carbon dioxide and water after burning, whereas Ron’s torch spewed smoldering magnesium onto his right arm. It got worse. The official looking after the gas supply to the cauldron got a little over-zealous. Instead of gradually turning on the gas, he got caught in the moment and went for it. But ever the professional, Ron kept smiling as the giant flame roared to life, further crisping the outer layers of skin, while the crowd cheered the opening of the Games.