MOSCOW — The first time the Olympic flame died out was amusing — that was Sunday at the Kremlin, when a plainclothes officer relit it with a cigarette lighter. But then on Monday a second torch flickered out, threatening national embarrassment.
A torchbearer taking part in the Olympic relay through Moscow on Monday afternoon was jogging along Raushskaya Embankment, on the other side of the river from the Kremlin, when his flame was extinguished, according to reports on TV Rainand amateur videos.
The torchbearer, accompanied by a police car, SUV, small van and several volunteer marshals, stopped. A volunteer rushed up to him with another torch. A third arrived holding what might be a small lantern — it was difficult to see.
The seconds dragged by. Dark clouds pressed down from above with seeming displeasure. The spectators could be heard. “It’s sad.” They chuckled uneasily. “Is Gazprom sponsoring this?” (Gazprom is the giant government-controlled energy company.) Then the new torch ignited, and the runner was on his way.
The flame had arrived in Moscow Sunday afternoon by chartered flight. As a former Olympic swimmer named Shavarsh Karapetyan carried the flame into the Kremlin, where it spent the night, the fire went out.
Fortunately, at least in this case, Russia is filled with smokers. The nearest one leaned over and relit the torch with his lighter. Officials later said the valve had not been turned on properly. They reassured the nation that the original flame was safely guarded in lanterns, which would relight relay torches.
The relay began with fanfare Monday, with a two-day, 50-mile route through Moscow. President Vladimir Putin was spared the sight of the failed flame. He was in Bali for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting, where he was quoted as politely saying he understood why President Barack Obama had canceled, what with a national crisis, government shutdown and so on.
Putin had personally wooed the International Olympic Committee for the 2014 Winter Olympics, which open Feb. 7 in Sochi, where the weather is as unpredictable as an open flame. Last February, it rained in the mountains where the outdoor events will be held.
He has made successful Olympics a point of personal pride and honor. The 14,000 torches produced for the relay were described as state of the art, designed to withstand the bitterest Russian winter.
And now here, on Monday, on the first day of the 123-day, 40,000 mile relay across this great land, the Olympic flame had gone out once again.