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The Olympic Torch Is Going to Space

For the 2014 games, Russia is sending the Olympic torch to space

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A Russian Soyuz rocket blasts off in 2008. Photo: NASA/Bill Ingalls

In the modern Olympic torch relay, the flame is lit in Olympia, at the site of the ancient Olympic games, and carried across the world from Greece to the Games’ host city. But for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the torch won’t just go across the world, it will leave it. For the first leg of the relay, Russia is sending the torch to space. The AP:

The Russian Federal Space Agency will take the torch to the Soyuz TMA-11M manned spaceship in early November as part of the four-month torch relay, which begins Oct. 7.

Once in space, Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov will take the Olympic torch on a spacewalk.

The torch relay is a modern invention, first introduced for the 1936 Berlin Games, says Discovery:

The idea for the Olympic torch relay is credited to a German professor and Olympic official by the name of Carl Diem, who saw the relay as a way to connect the ancient Olympics to the games being held in Berlin. For the 1936 Summer Games, the Olympic torch was ignited in its ancient birthplace, the Greek city of Olympia, and then brought to Berlin.

From the controversial Berlin Games the tradition spread, with the first Winter Olympic flame being carried from Olympia to Oslo in 1952.

Ever since those early torch-bearers, organizers have pushed the tradition of the flame relay, seeking to add political or symbolic meanings to the torch’s path, or to break new ground with how the torch is borne.

“Traditionally, relays have been carried out on foot,” says the International Olympic Committee, but “s the celebration of the Olympic Games has evolved, so has the Olympic torch relay. The modes of transport have slowly become more and more diversified, not only for practical reasons, but also to showcase the particularities of the regions crossed.”

In 1952, the flame traveled by air. In 1976, “The wonders of technology were highlighted when the Canadians organized the transmission of the flame by satellite between Athens and Ottawa.” In 1988, the torch crossed the Arctic Circle. In 2000, a diver carried the torch beneath the waves to the Great Barrier Reef. Russia’s jaunt into space for the 2014 games isn’t even the first time the tradition has gone to space: “The torch (but not the flame) was carried into space by astronauts (Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000),” says the IOC.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Winter Olympics History
How Olympic Bodies Have Changed Over Time

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About Colin Schultz
Colin Schultz

Colin Schultz is a freelance science writer and editor based in Toronto, Canada. He blogs for Smart News and contributes to the American Geophysical Union. He has a B.Sc. in physical science and philosophy, and a M.A. in journalism.

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