Hanging from the walls of from the Chelles and Hayashi design studio were photos of every single Olympic torch. From the Berlin games in 1936 to the 2014 Sochi games, they were plastered above the designer’s heads, serving perpetually as an inspiration.
The Chelles and Hayashi company, based in Sao Paolo, was one of 76 agencies to prototype a design for the 2016 Olympic torch, and their design was selected unanimously as the winner.
It’s a torch designed with the bold colors of the Brazilian flag. It expands vertically and it has segments that appear to “float” when being carried by the 1,200 torchbearers that will transport it across the country. It’s a totally unique design, made with the understanding of the history of all the other Olympic torches that came before it.
“It was so we could think about how people viewed the symbol and also communicate the spirit of each game for the world,” lead designer Gustavo Chelles says. “We wanted to build something simple, but at the same time bring a lot energy.”
Chelles and Hayashi employed a team of eight people and researched and designed a prototype with technical drawings over the course of eight weeks. The process to design and create an Olympic torch is one that is not constant over each Olympic games. It’s usually put together by a local company, who’s tasked with manufacturing a look and feel that represents the values of the location where the games are to be played.
The 2016 torch tries to capture the energy of Brazil. When the torch is tilted and passed along to the next bearer, the floating pieces apparent by its expansion are representative of the athlete’s hard work. With the 2002 Olympics, the theme centered around the athletes’ inner drive — represented by a glass chamber encasing the flame at the top of the torch. The 1996 olympic torch had 22 aluminum columns to mark each of the previous 22 olympic games. Though the themes are sometimes generic, they all come with a purpose.
“With every Olympics, you try to bring the culture and the elements of the area,” says Brent Watts, designer of the 2002 torch for the games in Salt Lake City. “Culturally, what speaks of the land?”
It took Watts a team of a dozen people to turn the torch from an idea to a reality. Everyone from fellow designers to a group of pyrotechnics made sure the flame was visible and that it “didn’t blow up” in its glass case. It took one month to make the prototype and then another six or seven months to actually design it — going through at least 12 different designs in the process.
“I will cry. I will be very happy to be there to see the cauldron being lit with the torch we’ve designed.” – Gustavo Chelles
When the 1996 torch was designed by the late Malcolm Grear, it was passed off to the Hillerich and Bradsby company that makes all the Louisville Slugger bats. And Danny Luckett personally handcrafted the wooden handle that was later used as the model for all the Olympic torches that year.
“At the time, it didn’t mean a whole lot,” says Luckett, who produced more than two million bats over his 46-year career. “It was just something else that they wanted me to make. … As the years went on, I thought more of it. I thought what an honor it was to see these things running down the street. It was something that I had made.”
Each torch begins its journey in Greece, where it is lit by the rays of the sun. It is then transferred to the host country, where upward of 1,000 people bear the torch as it is run through different cities over several months.
Chelles will run with the torch he designed when it gets to Sao Paolo on Sunday. He’ll be at the opening games on August 5th, when it is the center of the world’s attention, even for only a few moments. Chelles knows it will be an emotional moment for him. It was emotional for Luckett to see Muhammad Ali run with the torch he handcrafted. It was emotional for Watts to see the torch he designed lit in Athens, just two months after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and run next to a slew of American flags.
It’s a months-long process with many steps and many do-overs. But it’s a process that has a long-term emotional reward of providing a symbolic message about the strength of the host country.
“We worked hard with people from the committee to give a strong symbol and also a very emotional message,” Chelles says. “I will cry. I will be very happy to be there to see the cauldron being lit with the torch we’ve designed.”