When the Olympic flame finally wends its way into the Olympic stadium in Athens to signal the start of the Games of the XXVIII Olympiad, it will have covered a distance of more than 78,000 kilometres, travelled across five continents and 27 countries, and will have been carried by 11,000 people.
The journey of the Olympic torch began in March this year, with the lighting of the Olympic flame by the rays of the sun in a traditional ceremony held in ancient Olympia, Greece. Since that day, helping to hold the Olympic flame aloft in the 12,000 torches made for the torch relay has been a small slice of New Zealand — the New Zealand native hardwood, maple beech.
“That’s our wood,” says Bernie Lagan, managing director of Lindsay and Dixon, the Southland company that supplied the timber.
The New Zealand company supplied 150 cubic metres of wood for the torches over a period of 9 to 12 months, with the last torches finished just 6 to 8 weeks ago. Each torch stands 68 centimetres tall and weighs 700 grams, and is designed to resemble a leaf from an olive tree, a traditional part of the Greek landscape and an ancient symbol of the Athenian state.
“It was a special size and a special grain but it wasn’t anything extraordinary that we had to do,” says Mr Lagan.
Traditionally the timber that has been used in the torches, Nothofagus Menziesii, has been called silver beech in New Zealand, but to distinguish the wood from the Tautapere, the Southland company have renamed it Southland Maple Beech. “It just reflects the type of wood which is a very maple-coloured wood, with a similar grain pattern to American maple,” says Mr Lagan.
It was the maple beech’s straight grain and turning qualities made the Southland wood ideal for the design of the Olympic torch. “It is very even textured and grained which means it can be machined easily. It doesn’t break off in different planes and can be machined down to quite thin dimensions and still has the strength, stiffness and evenness of texture to allow those uses,” says Robert Miller, manager of the Indigenous Forestry Unit at New Zealand’s Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry.
According to MAF, there are about 1 million hectares of privately owned native forest land in New Zealand. “Lindsay and Dixon provides a great example of how companies can manage a second-growth native forest and have products that are keenly sought after internationally,” says MAF’s Robert Miller.
Both Messrs Miller and Lagan are hoping that the exposure of the New Zealand wood on the relay of the Olympic torch across five continents will help promote the qualities of the Kiwi hardwoods. “New Zealand native beech timber is becoming world famous and we would like to make it famous in New Zealand,” Mr Miller says.
So tight has been the security of the torches that it was only recently that Mr Lagan held one of the torches made from his company’s wood in his hand, and then it was a prototype. But on August 13th, that little slice of New Zealand will on display for all to see, when the Olympic torch is used to light the flame that signals the start of the 2004 Olympic Games.
Says Mr Lagan: “It was a great contract to win and an honour to be involved in the creation of such a prestigious global symbol.”