Most Famous Olympic Torchbearers and Cauldron Lighters

The Olympic Torch relay has seen many famous and notable individuals from various fields carrying the Torch over the years.

Here are some of the most famous Olympic Torchbearers:

Nelson Mandela (2004 Athens Olympics)

The former President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela, carried the Olympic Torch as a symbol of unity and reconciliation in the post-apartheid era. The event, which took place on June 12, 2004, saw Mandela light the Olympic torch on Robben Island where he was imprisoned for opposing apartheid as South Africa for the first time took part in the global relay of the flame. Mandela, who at the time was 85, thanked the Olympic Committee for presenting him such an honor.

READ MORE: Most Notable Accomplishments of Nelson Mandela

Muhammad Ali (1996 Atlanta Olympics)

The legendary boxer, widely regarded as one of the greatest athletes of all time, had the honor of lighting the Olympic Cauldron at the Opening Ceremony at Atlanta 1996.

It must be noted that the boxer won gold at the Light-heavyweight event at the 1960 Summer Olympic Games held in Rome, Italy.

On July 27, 2012, Muhammad Ali played a special role during the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Summer Olympics held in London. Ali was given the honorary role of being a “titular bearer” of the Olympic flag. This is a symbolic position where notable individuals are chosen to participate in the ceremony by carrying the Olympic flag. At that time, Muhammad Ali was dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that had significantly affected his physical abilities, including his ability to move and speak. Parkinson’s disease is known for causing tremors, muscle stiffness, and difficulty with coordination. Muhammad Ali’s wife, Lonnie, assisted him during this significant moment. She helped him to his feet and stood by his side as he participated in the ceremony.

Cathy Freeman (2000 Sydney Olympics)

Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman, an Aboriginal athlete, lit the Olympic Cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Games.

The athlete was also chosen as the flag bearer for the Australian delegation at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, highlighting her significant role in Australian athletics and her cultural importance as an Indigenous athlete.

Cathy Freeman’s historic and iconic achievement occurred at the 2000 Sydney Olympics when she secured the gold medal in the 400 meters. Notably, she became the first Indigenous Australian to win an individual Olympic gold medal, a moment celebrated in Australian sports history.

Freeman’s impact extends beyond her athletic achievements. She has been a symbol of reconciliation, equality, and empowerment, using her platform to inspire and make a positive difference in the lives of others, particularly Indigenous Australians.

Cathy Freeman at Sydney 2000

Wayne Gretzky (2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver)

Canadian ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky played a role in Vancouver’s winning bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics and was appointed as Special Advisor to Canada’s men’s hockey team for the Games. He also participated in the opening ceremony, joining other notable athletes to light the Olympic cauldron.

During the Games’ opening ceremony, former Canadian ice hockey star Gretzky, basketball player Steve Nash, skier Nancy Greene, and speed skater Catriona Le May Doan jointly lit the Olympic cauldron inside the ceremony venue of BC Place. Image: The lighting of an Olympic cauldron inside BC Place Stadium during the opening ceremony of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Naomi Osaka (2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo)

The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Torch Relay faced alterations and restrictions due to public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes included the cancellation of certain legs, such as the one in Miyakojima, and holding the relay without spectators in regions under states of emergency, like Matsuyama, Hiroshima, Hyōgo, and Okayama.

The relay concluded at Tokyo’s National Stadium on July 23, with tennis player Naomi Osaka lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony. Notably, a separate cauldron was lit on the Tokyo waterfront at the Yume No Ohashi Bridge in Odaiba for public viewing, marking the second time in Olympic history that the cauldron was not displayed in the athletics stadium, with the other instance occurring in 2016.

Sir Roger Bannister (2012 London Olympics)

In 2012, Sir Roger Bannister had the honor of carrying the Olympic flame at a significant location tied to his own historic achievement. He carried the Olympic flame at the Oxford University track stadium, which had been named after him to commemorate his extraordinary accomplishment.

Sir Roger Bannister is renowned for being the first person to break the four-minute barrier in the mile run. On May 6, 1954, at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, he completed the mile run in 3 minutes and 59.4 seconds, becoming a global icon in the world of athletics. This achievement was considered a significant milestone in the history of middle-distance running.

Carrying the Olympic flame at the stadium named in his honor was a meaningful and symbolic moment. It allowed Sir Roger Bannister to connect his own historic achievement with the larger Olympic tradition.

Sir Roger Bannister, the first person to run a mile in under four minutes, was a Torchbearer during the London Olympics in 2012.

Usain Bolt (2024 Paris Olympics – unveiling of the new torch)

In late July 2023, former Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and other dignitaries celebrated the unveiling of the new torch for the 2024 Paris Olympics near the Eiffel Tower. The torch, designed by Mathieu Lehanneur, imitates the Eiffel Tower’s reflection on the Seine River and symbolizes equality, water, and peacefulness. The torch is poised for a 68-day journey across French territories as part of the Olympic Torch Relay, starting in Marseille and concluding in Paris on May 8, 2024. Athletes and city officials, including French boxer Estelle Mossely, joined the festivities in Paris.

Princess Anne (2012 London Olympics)

Anne, Princess Royal, became the first British royal family member to compete in the Olympics and also participate as a Torchbearer.

The Olympic flame for the 2012 Games was handed over to Britain in a ceremony in Athens. Princess Anne, accompanied by David Beckham, Boris Johnson, and Lord Sebastian Coe, received the torch in torrential rain at the Panathenaic stadium. They would return with the flame for the start of the London 2012 torch relay.

Princess Anne and the Olympic Torch

Paavo Nurmi (1952 Helsinki Olympics)

In 1952, the legendary Finnish athlete Paavo Nurmi was chosen to carry the Olympic torch into the Olympic Stadium during the Helsinki Summer Olympics.

His participation was arranged by Urho Kekkonen, the Prime Minister of Finland and former chairman of the Finnish Athletics Federation.

Nurmi’s appearance was met with astonishment and excitement from the spectators. His iconic running style was immediately recognizable, and as he entered the stadium, the crowd’s cheers grew into a thunderous roar. When the national teams, gathered on the infield, saw Nurmi, they couldn’t contain their excitement and rushed toward the track’s edge.

The Finish athlete lit the Olympic Cauldron with the torch and then passed it to his idol, Hannes Kolehmainen, who lit the beacon in the tower. This moment became a historic and emotional highlight of the Olympic Games.

The Finnish middle-distance and long-distance runner, one of the greatest athletes in Olympic history, was a Torchbearer for the Helsinki Games.

Steve Nash (Vancouver, 2010)

Steve Nash, a highly respected NBA (National Basketball Association) player, made history at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver by carrying the Olympic torch and lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremony.

Steve Nash’s involvement in the torch relay was historic because he became the first NBA player ever to carry the Olympic torch and light the Olympic cauldron. This was a significant honor, highlighting his stature in both the sporting world and Canadian culture.

Yuna Kim (2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics)

Yuna Kim, a prominent South Korean figure skater, held the official role of ambassador for the 2018 Winter Olympics hosted in South Korea. Her significant role during the Opening Ceremony involved being the final torch bearer. She had the honor of lighting the Olympic flame at the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium, signifying the start of the Winter Games and showcasing her contribution to the event’s success and promotion.

South Korean figure skating sensation Yuna Kim, an Olympic gold medalist herself, carried the Torch in the lead-up to the PyeongChang Games. She holds the record of being the first figure skater to complete a Super Slam at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Image: 2018 Winter Olympics opening ceremony

Arnold Schwarzenegger (2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics)

On February 12, 2010, Arnold Schwarzenegger participated in the Vancouver Olympic Torch relay, which was part of the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics held in Vancouver, Canada. During this relay, the Olympic flame is carried through various stages, with different individuals running a portion of the route. Each torchbearer passes the flame to the next, symbolizing the journey of the Olympic flame from its original source in Olympia, Greece, to the host city of the Winter Olympics.

Schwarzenegger’s role in the relay was to carry the Olympic torch for a portion of the route and then pass it on to the next torchbearer. This event was significant as it allowed him to be part of the celebration leading up to the Winter Olympics and contribute to the Olympic spirit. After completing his segment of the relay, he handed off the torch to Sebastian Coe, a prominent figure in athletics and the former chairman of the London Organising Committee for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Li Ning (2008 Beijing Olympics)

Li Ning, a former Chinese gymnast and successful entrepreneur, gained fame for his remarkable moment during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. He had the honor of lighting the Olympic Cauldron, a symbolically significant act that officially marked the commencement of the Games. His participation in this iconic ceremony further solidified his legacy and contribution to the Olympics, showcasing the combination of his sporting achievements and entrepreneurial endeavors.

During the opening ceremony of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Chinese gymnast Li Ning had the honor of lighting the Olympic flame while suspended in the air, simulating flight as he circled the stadium using wires.


The above names are just a few examples of the many famous individuals who have had the honor of carrying the Olympic Torch. It must be noted that the selection of Torchbearers often reflects the host country’s values and ideals and celebrates both athletes and public figures who have made significant contributions to their respective fields.

Interesting facts about the Olympic Torch and Flame

The Olympic Torch and Flame are iconic symbols of the Olympic Games, representing the spirit of unity, peace, and excellence in sports.

Here’s what you need to know about the Olympic Torch and Flame:

  • The Olympic Torch is a specially designed torch that carries the Olympic Flame from its lighting ceremony to the host city of the Olympic Games. The torch design varies from one Olympics to another, often reflecting the cultural and historical themes of the host nation. It typically has a sleek and aerodynamic design to withstand various weather conditions.
  • The Olympic Flame is a symbol of the continuity of the ancient Olympic Games with the modern ones. It is ignited several months before the start of the Olympic Games during a traditional lighting ceremony in Olympia, Greece, at the Temple of Hera. This ceremony involves using the sun’s rays to light the flame, following a choreographed performance by priestesses.
  • After the flame is lit in Olympia, it is passed to the first torchbearer, who then carries it through a relay of runners. The torch relay route often covers significant landmarks and cities in the host country. The relay can involve thousands of torchbearers, including athletes, celebrities, and local citizens, each carrying the flame for a short distance.
  • The highlight of the torch relay is the lighting of the Olympic Cauldron during the opening ceremony of the Games. This moment symbolizes the official start of the Olympics. The final torchbearer, often a renowned athlete or cultural figure from the host country, ignites the cauldron with the Olympic Flame.
  • The Olympic Torch and Flame represent various symbolic values, including peace, friendship, and the global spirit of competition. The relay symbolizes the passage of Olympic traditions from one generation to the next.
  • The Olympic Flame remains lit for the duration of the Games and is extinguished during the closing ceremony, symbolizing the end of the Olympic competition. In some instances, a small amount of the flame is preserved and used to relight the flame at the next Olympic Games.
  • Throughout Olympic history, there have been special torches used for unique occasions, such as the Youth Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games. These torches have their own designs and ceremonies but follow similar principles.

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