By Ian Bateson
MOSCOW (Reuters) - The Olympic torch has been to the North Pole and traveled thousands of kilometers (miles) on the relay that will end at the Sochi Winter Games in Russia in February. The problem is, the flame keeps going out.
President Vladimir Putin aims to make the Games a showcase of Russia's modern face to the world 23 years after the fall of the Soviet Union. But preparations have been dogged by delays, cost overruns and criticism over issues ranging from Russia's treatment of gays, a ban on most protests in Sochi and the treatment of migrant workers on construction sites.
On top of that, the longest torch relay in Olympic history has been interrupted repeatedly since Putin launched it by hoisting the torch high outside the Kremlin on October 6.
It went out minutes later as a former Soviet swimming champion jogged with it through an archway into the Kremlin. In an incident broadcast live on state television, a plainclothes guard saved the day with a cigarette lighter.
U.S. lighter manufacturer Zippo posted a picture of the guard lighting the torch on Facebook, with the Twitter hashtag #ZippoSavestheOlympics, before threats of legal action from the International Olympic Committee prompted its removal.
The flame spluttered and died at least eight times in the first six days of the relay, the independent Dozhd television and Internet channel said.
Yulia Latynina, a journalist who has been following the planned 65,000-km (40,000-mile) relay, says the torch - made at a Siberian factory that produces submarine-launched ballistic missiles - has already gone out at least 44 times on its way to Sochi on Russia's Black Sea coast.
"A torch is a lot simpler than a missile - it's a big gas lighter," Latynina said on Ekho Moskvy radio station. "Question: Do our missiles fly the way our torches burn?"
The flame has also, at times, burnt too fiercely.
A video shot in Vologda, north of Moscow, shows the flame expanding to cover the entire upper part of the torch while being held by a man dressed in the blue robe of Grandfather Frost, Russia's version of Santa Claus.
Asked for comment, torch relay spokesman Roman Osin said that the number of times the torch had failed was within the normal range of error and that there had been similar incidents during the relays before the London and Beijing Olympics.
He did not say how many times it had gone out.
NO LAUGHING MATTER FOR PUTIN
The torches were designed to withstand Russia's extreme weather conditions, including high winds and temperatures that can range from -40 C (-40 F) to 40 C (104 F).
"We did not have any experience in doing this so we experimented," Viktor Filippov, deputy chief engineer at the Krasnoyarsk Machine-building Factory, which manufactured the torches, told Reuters before the relay began.
"It's an overstatement to say it can keep the flame burning anywhere, but it can do that in the given temperature range."
It is no laughing matter for Putin, who has staked a lot on a successful Games, but the torch has become the butt of jokes in Russia.
On a roadside in Kolomna, a city outside Moscow, residents greeted the torch by holding up lighters or striking matches.
One Twitter user suggested it was a good thing that Prometheus, the hero of Greek myth who gave fire to humanity, had not used a Sochi torch. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has used the torch's woes in his criticism of the authorities.
Bloggers have pointed to a similarity between the torch's design, resembling a feather of the Firebird in Russian folklore, and the label of a Soviet-era vodka brand, Russkaya.
At least the flame will not be a problem this week, when the torch is due to be launched to the International Space Station and then be taken on a space walk.
(Ian Bateson is a Reuters trainee; Additional reporting by Steve Gutterman, editing by Mark Heinrich)
- President Vladimir Putin