As the 2016 Olympics make their way through the second half of competition and the closing ceremonies loom ever closer, we turn our attention to the flame that burns at the heart of these games. The Olympic torch is a symbol of Olympic spirit and pride. It is carried to each of the games by individual after individual whose stories we come to know through their brief moment running with this very symbolic torch in hand. In its own way, the Olympic torch has come to represent all of us and our part in the games. Is it any surprise that Olympic torches have become collector’s items?
Let’s start with a bit of history. The Olympic flame itself has been the symbol of the Olympic games through the years. Representing Prometheus stealing fire from the Greek god Zeus, its representation as part of the games tie to the historic roots in Greece. Fire became a part of the games in the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. The inclusion of a torch, which transports that fire from Greece to the current site of the games, began as the brainchild of Carl Diem during the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.
Here, with this article, we return to the story of Olympic collector and unquestioned expert, Jim Greensfelder. Over the course of the 2016 Olympics, we’ve returned to his story a couple times discussing Olympic pin trading, Olympics winners medals and Olympic participation medals. Wouldn’t you just know that Jim also has an Olympic torch collection too?
During my interview, I asked Jim how he went from medals to torches; he explained that he actually got into them at about the same time. After giving away his massive Olympic pin collection to a museum (as detailed previously), he was looking for something to collect that was more specific to the games and used in the actual operation of those games. Torches caught his interest.
Before we begin, we need to put aside what is a common misconception when it comes to Olympic torches. There isn’t a single torch that is run from through the entire route to each opening ceremony. There are many and in some cases thousands of torches used in this process. Take the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as an example. There were probably 5,000 torches made for those games. That said, 5000 is a finite number. It’s not 100,000 and this limited availability as a collectible intrigued Jim.
It was this concept of a “finite number” sent Jim on the hunt and led him to collecting torches, winner’s medals and participation medals. He had just come off the pins in which people were duplicating and making more and more each time. This proved understandably frustrating. Reminiscing a bit, Jim remembered the 1984 booklet he received which showed every pin that was made for those games. It had a way in which you could check them off as you found them. The same was true for Calgary but then Atlanta broke that trend by releasing an unbelievable variety. Where Calgary shared in the neighborhood of 1,000 designs, Atlanta was more like 10,000. This is what ultimately turned Jim off collecting pins also lit a fire in his eye for these more finite items.
Asking Jim what kind of torches he had, he took me on a tour of a handful he pulled from storage for our conversation. The first was one that was certainly storied with history. As mentioned at the start of our article, it was the first torch ever created for the games and it came from the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Commenting on that history, Jim explained that people have tried to turn it around and say that it was part of Hitler’s propaganda machine but nevertheless it was the original torch carried at the games and maintains that distinction.
What I held in my hand was actually just the base of the torch. Originally it had a big long stick attached to it, which was made out of a material like a flare on the side of the road, like phosphorus. As I held it, the first thing I noticed about the Berlin torch was how light it was. It was understandable as they had to be to carry them a decent distance. These days, there are so many runners it doesn’t matter as much but back then the torch was designed with distance in mind.
Next, Jim handed me one from Sarajevo then one from Barcelona and we compared torches that had been burned versus ones that hadn’t. Jim explained that out of all the torches he shared with me today, the Sarajevo one (which was burnt) was probably the hardest one to get these days. This led me to question if burnt torches are more sought out than clean ones. He smiled and said that was a good question. There are certainly two types of collectors and there is a divide here. There are collectors who seek out only mint ones that have never been burnt. On the flip side, there is another market of collectors who seek out only torches that have been used in the games.
One from the Munich Olympics clearly carried the marks of having been burnt as you could still see the sooty residue covering part of the shaft. Jim moved a finger over a spot revealing some of the detail hidden by the residue from its use in the games. Fine etching and design was there just waiting to be seen again including a beautiful little version of the Olympic rings. Jim explained that some torches don’t stand up well once they’ve been used and pointed to some curved wood on one torch and showed how it can get in bad shape after it’s actually used.
I have to admit a bit of a person note here as it explains what was probably the most impacting moment of my visit with Jim. I’ve been a serious Olympic fan since the 1992 Winter and Summer Olympics. You see, 1992 was the last year during which both the summer and winter games occurred in the same year. The International Olympic Committee offset the Winter Olympics by two years after those games so ‘92 was a year where the Olympics really shone. It felt like a big deal that they were making this change. It also seemed to be a time when television coverage was growing with the rise of cable programming.
Sure, I caught some of the Albertville Winter games and had seen small parts of many games prior to that, but when it came to Barcelona, everything changed for me. Those games came at a good time as I had taken off work to organize a comic collection I owned. Being on a vacation at home, I ended up spending more time sitting in front of the television and watching the coverage (especially those Olympic late night reports) than actually working. By the end of those games, I had consumed an unprecedented amount of screen time and craved more. This trend (and turning point for my fandom) has only grown over the years. When Jim handed me the torch from the Barcelona Olympics and I held the participation medal in my hands, I felt a cold chill run down my arms and back with each item. This torch I was holding marked the starting point for my own passion for these games. In a way, it was almost as if I had come full circle in my fandom and it was a spectacularly magnificent moment for me.
Of course, I was there for a reason and I was very curious as to what value torches had on the secondary market. Jim set the stage for this answer by explaining that a lot of the organizations that run a torch run give the runner the opportunity to buy the torch they carry. In Atlanta, you could buy the torch you carried for just $300. That sets the starting value. As an aside, Coca Cola is typically the company that pays for and runs the torch relays.
Picking up the 1984 Los Angeles torch as he explained, Jim remarked that it’s a really nice example of a torch as it came with a leather handle. It most certainly was and Jim wanted to make a point to me of just how impacting carrying the torch can be. He explained that, for people who haven’t walked in the opening ceremony, the opportunity to run in a torch run is the highlight of their Olympic career. During that run people treat you like you are this amazing athlete and it is such an honor. Jim told the story of a woman whose full time career is running Olympic memorabilia auctions. She went down to Rio to run the torch and then simply turned around and flew back and that wasn’t the first time she did that. This is the kind of thing which, if you ever have the option, should be a “drop everything and do it” kind of moment in your life.
Getting back to valuation, I asked Jim about the lower end of obtaining a torch these days (as there may be future collectors reading this story). Jim shared that you could add one to your home for $2,000, if you go looking. Specifically, you can get an Atlanta torch for $2,000 to $2,500. Mexico City actually had five variations on the torch for its Olympics. You can get one of those for about $2,500. A Berlin torch will cost you about $6,000 but that price remains lower in the broader scheme of things as they made a lot of them. Sarajevo is valued at around $7,000. A Barcelona Olympic torch would probably be in the $3,000 range. The 1972 Munich torch would also fall in that same range. Finally, he shared that a Moscow torch would be $4,000 to $5,000.
Some Olympics, like the Calgary Olympics, didn’t allow the runners to keep their torch. In this case there were only about 150 or so torches made. Team Petroleum, who was sponsoring that Olympics, took all the torches that weren’t given to dignitaries and smashed them after the Olympics. Of course that made the value of these skyrocket. One just sold for $50,000. Jim smiled and explained that he’s negotiating with a guy in Canada now for one of those torches currently. For this avenue of collecting, the Olympic flame most certainly burns on!