The kinetic sculpture behind the Rio 2016 Olympic cauldron is so hypnotic you might not have noticed the flame itself is rather tiny compared to past games. The wind-powered art by sculptor Anthony Howe, as well as the low-emissions cauldron, are both part of Rio de Janeiro’s focus on sustainability and the environment. The medals are made of recycled materials, the podiums are intended for reuse, and the Opening Ceremony highlighted concerns about climate change.
The torch relay to Maracanã Stadium was disrupted by protesters, who at one point extinguished the torch, a response to the Rio government that’s in a state of financial emergency. Nevertheless, neither bankruptcy, nor exorbitant costs, nor Nazi power, will stop the international competitions (although World War II did cancel the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo). Each Winter and Summer Olympics, the cauldron is a major symbol of the spirit of the games, and Rio’s adhering to this with an eco-conscious mission.
Howe is an American artist based in Washington, and although it would be perhaps more meaningful for a Brazilian artist to be behind the transfixing sculpture, it is one of the most beautiful cauldrons to date. Rio is also the first city to host a second cauldron outside the stadium, with another version on Olympic Boulevard downtown. Stretching 40 feet in diameter, the spiral and circles of pulsing metal were a response by Howe to the power of the sun. He stated in a release:
My vision was to replicate the sun, using movement to mimic its pulsing energy and reflection of light. I hope what people take away from the cauldron, the Opening Ceremonies, and the Rio Games themselves is that there are no limits to what a human being can accomplish.
Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei de Lima had the honor of carrying the final torch to light the cauldron, which flickered warmly against the sculpture, the light radiating with an effect not unlike the sun. It will burn until August 21 when the games end.
Compared to recent games — Sochi 2014 with a flame shooting up a colossal sloping structure, followed by innumerable fireworks, for instance — Rio’s cauldron does appear elegant and austere. However, lighting the cauldron wasn’t always a fiery spectacle akin to a space shuttle launch. (In fact, the 1996 Atlanta Olympics cauldron did look quite a bit like a launch pad.) The torch relay started with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (yes, the Nazi ones), and its rather simple cauldron is still visible in the stadium. Since then, there have been beautiful moments, such as the 2000 Sydney cauldron lit while submerged in a pool of water and raised up in front of a waterfall (appropriately, it was repurposed as a fountain); and surreal scenes, like the industrial history-referencing series of flaming pipes for 2006 in Torino (that one, probably not low emission).
As host cities have built bigger, and more complicated, cauldrons, there have been malfunctions. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, one of the four big icicle arms that made up the cauldron failed to lift, and in 1988, in Seoul, peace doves infamously toasted when they decided to perch on the rim of the cauldron just before it burst into flames. And that’s not even getting into the torch truthers who are still debating whether or not Antonio Rebollo’s flaming arrow actually lit the Barcelona cauldron in 1992.
So looking back on Olympic history, the fact no doves caught on fire, and everything worked as it was meant to (the power of wind power!) is at least one success for Rio. Below, you can see Anthony Howe discuss the creation of the entrancing work from his studio: