11/29/2013 11:19 EST | Updated 11/29/2013 12:42 EST

Sochi Olympic Torch Relay Going Down In Flames

In this photo provided by torch bearer Natalia Usacheva, ice cold water swimmer, swims with the Olympic torch during the Olympic torch relay along the Tatyshev Channel of the Yenisei River in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013. The 65,000-kilometer (39,000 mile) Sochi torch relay, which started on Oct. 7, is the longest in Olympic history. The torch has traveled to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker and has even been flown into space. (AP Photo/

It wasn't the most auspicious start to an iconic Olympic spectacle.

Moments after Russian president Vladimir Putin began the Sochi Olympic relay -- a traditional passing of the torch that precedes the Winter Games -- he handed the beacon to a bit of a folk hero.

Shavarsh Karapetyan, a world-champion swimmer, once saved 20 people trapped in a bus after it had tumbled into a reservoir.

On Oct. 6, he stood powerless as the Olympic flame died in his hand.

Since then, the Moscow Times has tallied 44 occasions in which the torch died -- and Times writer Yulia Latynina raised questions about the government's competence.

The authorities claim that the Olympic torches were manufactured by the Krasnoyarsk Machine Building Plant, or Krasmash, a top-secret facility that produces Sineva ballistic missiles. We do not know how well and accurately the factory's missiles fly — that information is highly classified — but we do see how its torches burn.

Burn indeed. And literally.

As if dying at least eight times in the first six days wasn't enough, the torch even managed to set an athlete on fire this week.

Pyotr Makarchuk was bearing the torch, as he made his way through a crowd in the city of Abakan when flamed raced up the upper arm of his jackets. Only pride, perhaps, was injured as the fire was quickly snuffed out.

Here's a look at that sad spectacle:

The errant flames, Reuters reports, were caused by drops of liquid gas that fell on Makarchuk's jacket.

Of course, the ill wind may come as cheerful tidings to those hoping the $50-billion games will go down in flames -- even if they didn't expect it to be quite so literal.

Russia has come under harsh criticism in the wake of a law passed this summer banning homosexual "propaganda".

Since then a growing cast politicians and celebrities have joined a chorus calling for a Sochi boycott.

In an open letter to the International Olympic Committee (IOC), British actor Stephen Fry accused Putin of "making scapegoats of gay people just as Hitler did Jews."

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Thomas Bach, head of the IOC, defended Sochi, suggesting the autonomy of sport needs to be protected -- and that means respecting national laws.

Needless to say, Russian media has been unabashed in fanning those anti-gay flames.

“Western, European sodomites are trying to infiltrate Russia and organize a protest movement here, among our Russian perverts,” popular TV host Arkady Mamontov told viewers earlier this month.

Despite the relay's seemingly cursed journey into Olympic history, the media has largely focused on a handful of highs.

The torch was taken along for a stroll outside the International Space Station, as it orbited about 400 kilometres above Earth -- although it wasn't actually lit.

It also plunged into Lake Baikal, the world's deepest freshwater lake .

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