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Who decides who gets to carry the torch and light the cauldron at the Olympic opening ceremony?

The Olympic flame burns in the permanent cauldron after it was lit by Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky during the opening ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics February 12, 2010. REUTERS/Hans Deryk (CANADA) - RTR2A6E5
Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky lights the cauldron in the 2010 Winter Olympics (Reuters/Hans Deryk)
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The Olympic torch has been transported over 22,515 miles since April, moving through three countries and 300 cities and towns, carried by thousands of people using boats, bicycles and even a surfboard. The torch relay ends tonight in Rio de Janeiro, with the lighting of the main cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Summer Games at Maracanã Stadium.

The identity of the final torchbearer who will light the Olympic pyre, officially opening the Games, is a closely guarded secret and the subject of much speculation. Traditionally, the torch is lit by a sporting hero of the host country. Many on social media hoped that this year it be retired 75-year-old Brazilian soccer legend Pelé.

Turns out Pelé, a three-time World Cup champion and one of the most beloved soccer players of all time, was invited to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony. However he confirmed on Friday (Aug. 5), that poor health would prevent him from being able to attend the ceremony at all. “Only God is more important than my health,” he said, according to the BBC.

A spokesperson for the Rio 2016 organizing committee declined to comment, saying that the identity of the person lighting the cauldron was meant to be a surprise, the AP reported. Other possible names that have been tossed around by Brazilian media are Brazilian sailor Torben Grael and tennis player Gustavo Kuerten.

The way that torchbearers are chosen has changed over time, according to the Olympic Museum (pdf). Until the 1970s, torchbearers were mainly young, male athletes selected by the organizing committee, the host country government, or sports organizations.

After the Munich Olympics in 1972, the National Olympic Committee invited people with disabilities and “ordinary citizens” to carry the famed torch on its relay for the first time. Citizens are usually selected on the basis of their social and community engagement.

Since the 1990s, the organizing committee has included sponsors of the Games in their selection process. Over the years, the selection process has become an event in itself. For the 1996 Atlanta Games, the organizing committee, along with main sponsor Coca-Cola, carried out the “most extensive search process” in the history of the Olympics to select people who represented “Olympic ideals”. The selection process included a “community hero” application process selected by local community judging panels, a global contest organized by Coca-Cola, and a selection of competing athletes. Muhammad Ali lit the cauldron in the Centennial Olympic Stadium in Atlanta that year.

For the London 2012 Games, 8,000 torchbearers were selected through tens of thousands of candidates proposed online. The cauldron was lit by seven young British athletes, each nominated by one of the country’s prominent Olympians.

The 2016 Rio Olympics nomination process been run by the organizing committee and sponsors of the relay—Coca-Cola, Nissan and Brandesco. The general public could recommend torchbearers who are “everyday heroes” who contributed to their communities.

The relay traditionally begins in Greece, home of the first Games. This year, a total of 12,450 people participated in Greece and Brazil. The first and last torchbearers are particularly significant and are chosen by the organizing committee and sponsors for their contribution to the host country, or in some cases to send a message. The first person to carry the torch for the Games this year was Lefteris Petrounias, a celebrated Greek artistic gymnast, on April 21.

Greek actress Katerina Lehou, playing the role of High Priestess, passes the Olympic flame to the first torch bearer, Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias (Reuters/Yannis Behrakis)

While we await the verdict on who will be the final torchbearer and light the cauldron tonight, here’s a list we’ve compiled of ten memorable cauldron lighters at past opening ceremonies. (You can read a comprehensive timeline of cauldron lighters over at The Atlantic.)

John Mark in Britain, Summer 1948

The selection of Mark, a little-known athlete picked more for his looks than skill, was controversial.

Guido Caroli in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Winter 1956

While approaching the stage on skates, the Italian speed skater tripped on some microphone wires and fell in front of 13,000 spectators. Somehow, he managed to hold on to the torch, get up and light the cauldron, making his mark on history.

Yoshinori Sakai in Tokyo, Summer 1964

Sakai, who was born in 1945 in Hiroshima on the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, was selected to symbolize Japan’s rebirth.

Enriqueta Basilio in Mexico City, Summer 1968

The Mexican track and field star was the first woman to ever light the cauldron.

Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson in Montreal, Summer 1976

The two teenagers were selected to represent the English and French-speaking parts of Canada, and to reflect national unity.

Rafer Johnson in Los Angeles, Summer 1984 

Johnson, the first African-American to light the Olympic cauldron, calls it “one of the proudest moments” of his life.

Michel Platini and François-Cyrille Grange in Albertville, Winter 1992

French football star Michel Platini was accompanied by seven-year-old Grange, the youngest person to ever light the Olympic cauldron.

Antonio Rebollo in Barcelona, Summer 1992

Rebollo, the only Paralympian ever to light the cauldron, did it by launching a flaming arrow into natural gas.

Muhammad Ali in Atlanta, Summer 1996

Ali, who won Olympic gold in 1960, lit the cauldron in Atlanta, creating one of the most emotional moments in Olympic history.

Cathy Freeman in Sydney, Summer 2000

Freeman was selected to represent the cause of Australia’s Aborigines and is the only person to have won a gold medal at the same Games in which they lit the cauldron.

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