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Top 10 Cauldron Lightings of the Olympic Games

By Brad Botkin | July 27, 2012, 8 a.m. (ET)

The Olympic Opening Ceremony is a spectacle of grandeur unlike anything in sports. The flags. The music. The energy. And of course, the entering of the Olympic torch into the stadium and symbolic lighting of the Cauldron. If you don’t get goose bumps watching it, there’s something wrong. 

The torch is initially lit in Olympia, Greece. Over the course of the next few months it is transported to the host city via what’s known as the Olympic Torch Relay, passing through the hands of thousands of torchbearers, carried through cities and across countries by way of foot, water and even airplane, before eventually making its way into Olympic Stadium on the night of the Opening Ceremony, where it’s used to light to cauldron. One of the true marks of the more recent Games is the surprise of who will be the final torchbearer, and how, in fact, the cauldron will ultimately be lit. So without further adieu, here are the Top 10 Olympic Cauldron lightings of the modern Olympic Games. 

10. 2002 Winter Olympics – Salt Lake City, Utah

This one was special because maybe the most famous team in Olympic history, the 1980 gold medal U.S. men’s hockey team, did the lighting. After the torch was skated around the ice, it was carried up a staircase to the “Miracle” team, which then lit the bottom of a glass tower, sending the flame up to the Cauldron. It was the first time that glass had been used in the lighting of the Cauldron. 

9. 1964 Summer Olympics – Tokyo, Japan

If the spirit of the Olympic Games is rooted in fierce but friendly rivalry and competition then the lighting of the cauldron in Tokyo, the first Games to be held in Asia, was perhaps the most symbolic of all lightings. The final torchbearer, Yoshinori Sakai, a 19-year-old who never competed in the Olympics, was chosen to light the Cauldron because he was born on August 6th, 1945 – the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It was seen as a symbol of Japan’s post-war rise as a country of peace. 

8. 2000 Summer Olympics – Sydney, Australia

For sheer show, this one might take the cake. After running up a flight of stairs, Cathy Freeman, an Australian 400-meter runner, made her way up a flight of stairs and into the center of a pool of water. She then bent down and lit a completely hidden mechanism that proceeded to light a partially submerged ring, making it appear as though the water itself was burning. A ring of fire circled Freeman – who, incidentally, would become the first athlete to light the cauldron and win a gold medal at the same Olympic Games – and eventually ascended to light the Cauldron. 

7.  1980 Summer Olympics – Moscow, Russia

Prior to 1980, the lighting of the cauldron was a pretty straightforward thing: the final torchbearer marched the torch to the final lighting place, raised it for the crowd, and lit the cauldron. But in 1980, for the first time, they started to get creative with the lighting. As basketball gold medalist Sergei Belov ran the torch into the stadium, a pathway connecting the track to the Cauldron appeared, allowing Belov to run over the heads of all the athletes. It set a precedent, as from that point forward there would always be some sort of gimmick used to light the Cauldron. 

6. 2006 Winter Olympics – Torino, Italy

At 187 feet high, this marked the tallest Cauldron in Olympic history. Two-time Olympic champion Stefania Belmondo lit a mechanism that sent off an explosion of fireworks around the stadium’s ring and up to the Cauldron. To watch this one is maybe the most eye-popping display of all the lightings. 

5. 1984 Summer Olympics – Los Angeles

With the final torchbearer being kept a secret, cheers erupted inside the Los Angeles Coliseum when 1960 gold medalist decathlete Rafer Johnson, who’d starred at UCLA, made his way up a staircase that stretched all the way to the top of the Coliseum. It looked like something out of a fantasy story, this giant stairway stretching to the heavens, Rafer climbing for what seemed like forever before finally reaching the top, where he stood beneath the Olympic rings and raising the torch for the crowd. When the fire swirled around the rings and up to the Cauldron, fans erupted in cheer. 

4. 2008 Summer Olympics – Beijing, China

This one was amazing. Raised to the very rim of the stadium, gymnast Li Ning, suspended by wires, ran around the top of the stadium as clips of the torch’s long journey to Beijing ran. When he got to the Cauldron, which gave the effect of spiraling into the air, Ning lit a huge wick that sent the flame burning up the spiral path and into the Cauldron. 

3. 1992 Summer Olympics – Barcelona

For creativity, you’d have a hard time arguing against this one. Up until 1992, the lighting was always done by an athlete, or a group of athletes, actually touching the torch to the Cauldron. But this time, Spanish archer Antonio Rebello, after having his arrow lit by the final torch runner, literally shot a burning arrow into the Cauldron to set it ablaze. If you don’t remember this one, you have to check it out.

2. 2004 Summer Olympics – Athens, Greece

This one ranks so highly as much for the site and the way the torch was relayed into the stadium. Athens, of course, was the site of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, and for the first time ever the torch made its way around the entire world in a relay through former Olympic cities before circling back to Greece. The Cauldron itself was designed to look like a giant replica of the 2004 Olympic torch, and this time the Cauldron came to the final torch carrier. 1996 gold medalist windsurfer Nikolaos Kaklamanakis did the lighting before the Caldron swung back upward and remained raised his above the stadium.

Muhammad Ali1. 1996 Summer Olympics – Atlanta

The identity of the final torchbearer was particularly secretive in 1996. Athletes and fans alike speculated who it would be, and when the greatest of all-time, Muhammad Ali, emerged to take the torch from four-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer Janet Evans, the reaction was something that can hardly be captured in words. Ali, of course, was as big a presence as ever, and after lighting the Cauldron he was presented with a replacement gold medal from his 1960 Olympic victory. To this day, it remains one of the most memorable moments in sports history.