The Olympic Flame visited the North Pole


Dr. Lassi Heininen is Professor at University of Lapland, Finland and the Editor of the Arctic Yearbook.

The Olympic Flame is reaching the North Pole (Photo:Organizing committee of Sochi 2014) The Olympic Flame is reaching the North Pole (Photo:Organizing committee of Sochi 2014) The Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay, which was carried by the Russian icebreaker “50 Years of the Victory”, reached the North Pole on the 19th of October 2013 at 14:37 pm.  The Olympic flame was lit in the cauldron at the North Pole during the same day.

An international delegation of the Arctic states brought the Olympic flame to the North Pole as a part of the Torch Relay for the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The delegation was led by Arthur Chilingarov, a famous Russian polar explorer and the Special Envoy of President Putin to the Arctic and the Antarctic. It consisted of members, who represent science communities of the Arctic states, and many of them are active in international scientific higher educational cooperation. Among other honorary torchbearers were Professor Elena Kudryashova, Rector of the Northern Arctic Federal University, Russia; Dr. Christian Marcussen from Denmark; Dr. Jan-Gunnar Winther, Director of the Norwegian Polar Institute; and Professor Lassi Heininen from the University of Lapland, the chairman of the Northern Research Forum Steering Committee; as well as the two Olympic medallists, Pat Pitney from USA and Steve Podborski from Canada.

The voyage had several highlights and potential political impacts which give a ground for further discussion, as well as speculations, and follow-ups: This was the first time that the Olympic flame was brought to the North Pole. As well, this was the first time that the North Pole has been reached in darkness during the long Polar Night. With the strong representation of the international Arctic science community the voyage was also a showcase of international Arctic cooperation, particularly between the eight Arctic states.

The Organizing Committee of the XXII Olympic Winter Games (and the XI Paralympic Winter Games) of 2014 in the City of Sochi was in charge of the Torch Relay to the North Pole, that took place October 14-25, 2013. The technical implementation was done by the Russian Rosatom which owns the strongest nuclear icebreaker of the world “50 Years of the Victory”. The Olympic flame arrived to Moscow on the 6th of October 2013, and it will arrive to the opening of the Sochi Winter Games on the 7th of February 2014. With its 65 000 kilometres the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay will be the longest national relay in the history of Olympic Winter Games. 


I was invited by the Northern (Arctic) Federal University, NArFU on the 10th of September 2013 - ”…from the list of people who are well-known for their contribution to the development and exploration of the Arctic region” -, and the Organizing Committee of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Torch Relay to become a honorary torchbearer, and the representative of my country, of the Torch Relay to the North Pole for the XXII Olympic Winter Games and the XI Paralympic Winter Games of 2014 in the City of Sochi, in October 14-25, 2013. I have written these personal notes in that capacity.

14th of October 2013:

It was very (too) early morning departure from Grand Hotel, midtown of Reykjavik to Keflavik Airport, and further to Helsinki by the morning flight. I had managed to have some sleep, though the 2nd day of at the First Arctic Circle in Reykjavik was long with many duties. Fortunately, the Icelandair flight to Helsinki was on time, the problem was more that in a summer time there is three hours difference between Finland and Iceland. From the Helsinki-Vantaa Airport straight to home, where a few obligatory activities within the next 4,5 hours (e.g. to make laundry, print travel documents, do de- and repacking, check that needed papers and books, and of course, check that I will have proper clothes for the North Pole (sic)). A short chat with my son, Tarmo, who drove me to the Pasila Railway station, where I was just on time to take a train to St. Petersburg, and from the Finland station to Crown Plaza Airport hotel, where I arrived the midnight. Again a few obligatory activities, and only a few hours of sleeping (I don’t think that I never will use to this). 


Sailing to the North Pole (Photo:Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)Sailing to the North Pole (Photo:Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)15th of October 2013:

Get up early in a morning and straight to Pulkova Airport 1, where a lot of people and a hassle. The flight departed and landed to Murmansk on time at 11:50 am. My luggage was prioritized, but the taxi by the organizers was late. Fortunately, my position as the official representative of Finland allowed me to have all possible assistance by the Finnish authorities, including a note by the Finnish Embassy in Moscow to the Russian Foreign Ministry (as a political scientist and political historian this is an interesting detail). All worked well, and I stepped onto the board of the Russian atomic icebreaker “50 Years of the Victory” at 1:25 pm, just before the official departure time at 2 pm. The official opening ceremony of the Torch Relay to the North Pole with the other torchbearers on the dock of the Murmansk harbour was, however, over. Fortunately, there was no delay of the Torch Relay because of me. Also the leader of the Expedition and Torch Relay, great explorer Arthur Chilingarov was happy to have me on board, although he and other representatives of the organizers were a bit nervous due to a danger of a delay, since there were so many things to take into consideration when leaving for the Arctic Ocean during the Polar night (therefore, the real departure time from Murmansk was 17:25 pm). First Chilingarov and then I had a short address at the 1st gala dinner of the voyage (the organizers asked me to have that on behalf of the international group of torchbearers). Thus, I could shortly refer my duties at the Arctic Circle as an excuse to arrive so late, and after that this small episode was not any more discussed.

The gala dinner was nice – a lot of food and drinks, good company, and lot of dancing. This was particularly relaxing for me, and exactly what I needed after 2.5 weeks of travelling, and the last 30 hours of constant running and taking care of obligatory duties due to a tight schedule.

Northern Lights (Photo: Organizing Committee of Sochi 2014)Northern Lights (Photo: Organizing Committee of Sochi 2014)16th of October 2013:

The first full day on-board - several meals (four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, tea/coffee and dinner), some readings, going around the ship, taking some pictures. And, the first meeting of the torchbearers with a result of a long list of presentation by each of us during the next two weeks.  Early into a bed and good night sleep of ten hours.

17th of October 2013:

I was first time dressed up my uniform, and actually I got it in the morning. We torchbearers went out on a deck for pictures: tens of pictures were taken, and lot of shooting was done, and each of us were interviewed 4-5 minutes (we were told to show personal emotions about the Torch Relay to the North Pole which wasn’t so easy, since you didn’t know, yet, what will be your feelings up there).

We reached the Franz Josephs Land in late evening. The 2nd gala dinner - great food and drinks, toasts with other torchbearers and representatives of different Russian groups, and lot of dancing, particularly for me (it came out that I’m the only male of the torchbearers who is fond of dancing). In that night dancing was a bit more challenging due to rough drive on a stormy Barents Sea, but Elena (Kudryashova) and myself learned fast how to do that. 

18th of October 2013:

After the gala dinner I took a shower and was ready for a bed, but couldn’t sleep. Wind was blowing and the two nuclear reactors were vibrating. According to the TV screen our location was 82 degrees Northern latitudes and the speed 17 nautical miles. I guess the reason for my sleepless was that at 3 am we reached the sea ice and started to break it.

At 13:00 pm we crossed the 85th Northern latitude, and at 21:44 pm the 87th Northern latitude. We are keeping good speed - 15-16 knots -, though we all the time break the ice - impressive.

19th of October 2013:

In early morning we crossed the 89th Northern latitude: at 8:00 am it was 89th and 15’ and at 9:15 already 89th and 30’. I started slowly to understand that I am going to have my lecture just before we will reach the North Pole, vow! Indeed, when I finished the lecture, and I had to stop it a bit earlier due to security training for the North Pole, the coordinates were 89 degrees, 48’ N and 108 degrees, 35’ E. Am I the first political scientist at the North Pole, maybe or maybe not, cannot say for sure? However, I am the first political scientist having a lecture on geopolitics at the North Pole (sic).

The Russian atomic icebreaker “50 Years of the Victory” has reached the North Pole (Organizing Committee of Sochi 2014)The Russian atomic icebreaker “50 Years of the Victory” has reached the North Pole (Organizing Committee of Sochi 2014)I went out about half an hour before the moment. There was total darkness (the Polar night) and full moon, cold but no strong wind, and a very slippery deck. We reached the North Pole at 14:37 pm - many pictures, lot of shooting and champagne, hurrah, hurrah…

According to Valentin Davidyants, Captain of the icebreaker and Chilingarov we made a few records: the first group at the North Pole at this time of year, i.e. in darkness and during the polar night; the speed we entered to the North Pole (the trip from Murmansk to the North Pole took 91 hours and 12 minutes); and the first time in the history of the Olympic Games the Olympic flame visited the North Pole. And, we arrived to the pole one day before the organizers were counting.

The weather conditions were perfect – no hard wind, not too cold - and therefore, the organizers of the journey decided to do all the shooting and filming within the next 12-15 hours hoping that the weather will not be changed within the next 24 hours. That meant that actually we did not have time enough for to have a proper training how to do the running. From 4:40 until 5:40 pm we had our second, and last, training of torch bearing without a flame, though and went through the route so that each of us then knew her/his position where to wait for the flame and route. We also went on ice. This was the first time for me to be on the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean – it was touching, particularly, when you easily started to think about the possibility, that we might lose this soon. There are those who would like to see the Arctic Ocean without (multi-year) sea ice, first of all for the utilization of hydrocarbons and sea transport. However, there is another discourse, “our ice dependent world”, as was the slogan of the NRF Open Assembly in 2011.   

The order of the route was that the captain will start from the captain bridge and go to the other side of the bridge. Yelena will continue to the flag deck in the rear, where I will be waiting for her. I will run to the middle of the ship and three stairs down to the helicopter pad, where I give the flame to Jens-Petter (Nielsen). There will be two more running of the beck and then four on the ice. The grand finale will be, when Chilingarov will put the cauldron into fire. At that moment we other torchbearers will be around the Cauldron waving our flags and cheering.    

About at 10:30 pm we had done all the shooting both on the deck and the ice. We did two full rounds of shooting: the first one without stop – that is for tv-program - and the second one with stops and repeating part of the shots – that is for a film. I managed to do my running without problems, although the deck was really slippery. And, there were those three stairs, and there were many cables in the ceiling of the ship (I didn’t want to cause any fire on board outside the torches and cauldron).

Dr. Lassi Heininen receives the Olympic Flames (Photo:Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)Dr. Lassi Heininen receives the Olympic Flames (Photo:Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)Everything went well, and it was great fun.

Though a bit too much flag waving for me, but on the other hand, is’t that what the Olympic Games are all about? After the shooting also other passengers of the ship were allowed to go to the ice – and indeed, there was a carnival on ice! I also went back on ice to take the picture, “the Arctic Yearbook meets the North Pole”, where I as the Editor of the AY is carrying a special hard copy of the 2013 Arctic Yearbook

After that we were more than ready for a dinner and drinks, and in the next day we would start our return trip back to Murmansk! Well, that was what we thought, and many of us were already dressed for the dinner. The reality hit back, when it came out about at 11 pm that we had to make one more round of shooting on ice with projected flags for multi-media show. After I heard the announcement, my first thought was that this is a bad joke. But it was not and we had to dress the uniform, again, and go back to the ice. This last shooting became a great fun, and in the video it looks a nice show.

All this meant that we torchbearers and the members of the film groups were able to start the dinner after the midnight. That dinner turned to be a real night party with good food, great drinks, and lot of dancing.  

20th of October 2013:

Indeed, it was a nice party. I hardly remember how I manage to reach my cabin.  The 20th of October was Sunday, and it was a slow day. At 5 pm at the Aft saloon was a presentation on the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games by Natasha. It was much new and useful for me. Then there was an ordinary dinner, and after that a movie by Victor Boyarski on the Antarctic; he is a nice man - a polar explorer and good in translation – who is smiling, laughing and joking every now and then.

The Olympic Flame burns at the North Pole (Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)The Olympic Flame burns at the North Pole (Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)21st of October 2013:

At that night I didn’t sleep so well. It wasn’t good, when thinking what was in front of me: a heavy program as the torch bearers of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games Torch Relay and as the representative of your country.

Breakfast as usual, and in the end of that hesitations, misconceptions and rumours for a while, what we are going to do in that day. Then suddenly we got an invitation to the Alf salon for listening a presentation on the University of the Arctic by Pat (Pitney). After that there was an introduction to the ship, 50 Years of the Victory the cool icebreaker, as I said in my short interview. It was very informative presentation. Then there was a call for Elena, Jan-Gunnar (Winter)and myself to go to the gym of the ship, where the film group was shooting us, and the two Olympic medal winners of the team with an idea to show how we are training for the torch relay (I hadn’t even tried these kinds of gym equipment before (sic)).

After that I was able to test the sauna and swimming pool of the ship – actually when they asked me to say how nice the icebreaker is. As asked I said something like after being a few days on board I am able to say that this is a hot, cool icebreaker, and it’s yours. Most probably they will not use this interview, because it sounds like an imitation of the Sochi 2014 Games slogan, “Hot. Cool. Yours.”. Or, they might think that I was ironic, when actually I really support the real spirit and values of the Olympic Games.

Then finally, we had a dinner at the Captain’s cabin, and this was a real long dinner). My toast was about to finish my lecture on Arctic geopolitics by saying that the year of 2013 is the year of the Arctic - due to among others, the Kiruna ministerial meeting, the Salekhard Arctic Dialogue, the First Arctic Circle, and finally the Torch Relay to the North Pole -, or even more, this year of the Arctic has turned to be global, and the Olympic Games is all about global activity.

When I mentioned to Chilingarov that I am going to inform President Grimsson about the voyage, after being back in Finland, he asked me also to inform Finnish President Niinistö, whom he had met in Salekhard and found an energetic person. Well, I will send his greetings to the two presidents.

I also wrote the following unique text for the guest book of the 50 Years of the Victory which all us, the torchbearers signed: “To The 50 Years of the Victory captain and crew, For us the Torch Bearers of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games Torch Relay it has been a great pleasure and honour to be on board of this hot, cool vessel – the best and fastest icebreaker in the world. We enjoyed our time on board here, and first of all being able to reach the North Pole together with such a nice and friendly group of people, and driven by the icebreaker 50 Years of the Victory! Somewhere, nearby the North Pole 21st of October 2013.”

22nd of October 2013:

During the night we reached an open water, and soon after that we were in the Franz Joseph Land archipelago. Steingrimur Jonsson had to hurry with his lecture, as I had to do on Saturday, due to the fact that we entered to the strait, where is located the former research station, Bukha Tiknaya, and a very nice rock, called Rubini Rock. We had our last duty as torchbearers in our uniforms: They took a group picture with all the participants of this project. They also filmed each of us individually when walking on board. I also gave calls by a satellite phone to my travel agency, as well as to my daughter, Ilona. The farewell party was a real Russian carnival: Good food and drinks, awards and diplomas for us, and our short thanks and addresses, and of course, lot of dancing until the midnight.

23rd of October 2013:

The sun appeared next day - It was great –, and what a beautiful sunset in the afternoon. This was a day of lectures and films/slideshows, as well as that of waiting for an arrival. I went early bed (rather rare thing at this journey) and slept for nine hours.

24th of October 2013:

Another very beautiful sunny, and actually rather warm, day. The sea was very calm in the ‘friendly’ Barents Sea, to understand how exceptional this is, you have to know that usually in October in the Barents Sea there are 26 stormy day in the Barents Sea. I went out on the deck for a walk, to have fresh air, see the sun and smell the sea. I also took some pictures and manage to have one on a Russian nuclear submarine (most probably a Delta class strategic sub) sailing toward the Arctic Ocean – this was an interesting thing for a political scientist doing research on security studie4s.

Today, we got information from the Olympic Torch Relay Committee that the launch of the video on the Torch Relay at the North Pole will be on Friday, 25th of October 2013 at 9:00 am (Moscow time).

We were expecting to arrive to Murmansk in the evening, and we did about at 9 pm. Before that we got the phone connection back, which meant several busy people, no time any more for social chatting and long meals - several phone connections back to home or offices. As well it meant to allocate time enough for to check your e-mails. I did at midnight, after the farewell those of us who took a flight from Murmansk to Moscow

25th of October 2013:

The last morning at the ship and last breakfast on board, though it was not at all the same any more, since about half of the group had left us last night, and even more, we were in the harbour of Murmansk (no rolling, no sounds of waves or breaking ice).

Indeed, the first film material on the Torch Relay to the North Pole was launched at 9:00 am (Moscow time) by all Russian television channels.

At 10 am the rest of us left the icebreaker for the Murmansk airport and further to St. Petersburg and home. The last episode of my Torch Relay to the North Pole was when Finnair tried to charge me extra due to my other luggage, i.e. the box of my torch, which I had bought and paid. After some time of arguing, and promising that I will make ‘noise’ in Finland, the lady in charge at Pulkova Aiport was wise enough, as well as nice, to promise to return the money.


The voyage of the Olympic Torch Relay to the North Pole in October 2013 had a few highlights and findings as conclusions. Each of them gives a ground for further discussion and follow-ups, as well as speculations:

First, the October North Pole voyage was one of the four special legs of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay (the flame was also brought to the space, on the top of a high Siberian mountain and on the bottom of the Lake of Baikal), and first time that the Olympic flame was brought to the North Pole. In international media (e.g. International New York Times on the 19th of December 2013) the Sochi 2014 Olympic Torch Relay has raised speculations of misuses, that the Olympic flame has been relit, and an emphasis of nationalistic approaches by the Russian president and government.

Indeed, the Sochi Torch Relay is the largest in the history of Olympic Games with its 14,000 legs and thousands of torchbearers. Also the state territory of the Russian Federation is the largest one in the world. And, the Olympic Games are said to be a universal, and indeed global, festival for the people and nations. Based on my personal experiences I am able to state that the Torch Relay to the North Pole was done according to the spirit and rules of the Olympic Games, and there were neither misuses with the flame nor flags.

Arctic States' flags at the North Pole (Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)Arctic States' flags at the North Pole (Organizing committee of Sochi 2014)Second, the Torch Relay to the North Pole had a strong representation of the Arctic states. There was an honour torchbearer from each Arctic state with an equal mandate and her/his own flag. The Russian Olympic Committee could, however, do also this part of the Torch Relay as national by having only Russian torchbearers (with the Russian flag), as was the case with other three special legs of the relay. Yes, Russians used the October 2013 voyage to the North Pole as an opportunity to showcase the existing international cooperation between, and common interests of, the eight Arctic states. This was manifested by the colourful flag show, or flag ‘planting’, on the (sea ice of the) North Pole as the grand finale of the Torch Relay.

Is there behind a learned lesson from the Russian expedition to the (bottom of the) North Pole in August 2007 for to bring sample sediments, as well as plant the Russian flag on the sea bottom? Thus, it would be wiser to re-manifest the dominance on, or even ‘ownership’ of, the North Pole by having an international delegation on board.  Or, is this simply due to the fact that the current Arctic cooperation is both international and institutionalized, but in a new state due to globalization? Whatever, the acceptance of several major powers from Asia as observers of the Arctic Council has created a new geopolitical situation, as well as challenges, for the Arctic states, particularly the littoral states. Followed from this they consciously know that they share same interests, would like to agree (as much as possible) on Arctic issues, management and governance, and would like to show that there are common ‘house rules’ in the Arctic, as well as the Arctic Council, which also newcomers should respect. Here the Russian Federation is an important actor, and thus the October 2013 voyage to the North Pole can be interpreted to play an important role in the cooperation.

Third, the North Pole Torch Relay was even more: the strong representation of the international Arctic science community strongly shows, even manifests, the interplay between science, (higher) education and sports. (This was supported by the series of lectures on the Arctic covering several fields, such as international maritime law, climate change, geopolitics, oceanography by the torchbearers.) This has not been the case earlier with Olympic torch relays. It is more a post-modern than traditional or national approach which reminds me about the niche of the Northern Research Forum and the main design of its Open Assemblies. This is the direction where international, multilateral cooperation in the globalized Arctic is going, or should go, into.  

Fourth, this was the first time that the North Pole has been reached in darkness during the long Polar Night (and it is said to be done in a record time). This fact was informed to us in the beginning of the voyage. It was repeated in the end of the voyage by emphasizing the importance to be able to reach the North Pole in darkness. Indeed, Russia is technically able, unlike any other Arctic state, to navigate in the Arctic Ocean, and now in darkness, and has rich tradition in that. Behind are strong Russian national (economic) interests to increase the utilization of natural resources, as the just started offshore oil drilling in the Petsora Sea shows, as well as promote its infrastructure, in the Russian Arctic. Already the 2008 Russian state policy on the Arctic clearly indicated, and the 2013 state policy even manifests, this. In this context, the voyage to the North Pole can be taken as a manifestation of Russia’s technical capability to be present in, and utilize (off-shore) resources of, the Arctic Ocean area which makes the Russian position even stronger.

However, also other Arctic states prioritize their national interests and have put economic interests on the top of them. Thus, (geo)economics seems to have taken over (geo)politics and science, as well as the environment and environmental protection.

Sea Ice, October 2013 (Photo:Organizing Committee of Sochi 2014)Sea Ice, October 2013 (Photo:Organizing Committee of Sochi 2014)Further, the first legally binding agreement under the auspices of the Arctic Council on cooperation in Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic asks and requires better readiness and safer navigation in the Arctic Ocean. In this context, the October 2013 voyage can be seen as an experimental thing with international participation and in a new global context. 

Final, the voyage showed, and its record speed manifested, the fact that the sea ice of the Arctic Ocean is melting and becoming thinner. If the sea ice is going to melt this fast, there might not be solid multi-year sea ice in near future for activities in a summer time. From this point of view the Olympic Torch Relay voyage to the North Pole with its nice pictures and videos can be taken either as a picturesque point of view on, or an ultimate presentation on behalf of, the snowy and icy marine Arctic ecosystem.



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