The sun beamed generously on ancient Olympia on Thursday, sending down ample rays to light the Olympic flame in the traditional ceremony that marks the start of the Olympic Torch relay and begins the countdown to the Olympic Games in August. The flame was lit at noon on the March 25 Greek national holiday, in an imposing display attended by Greek President of the Republic Kostis Stephanopoulos and Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, the head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Jacques Rogge, Greek Olympic Committee president Lambis Nikolaou, the chairwoman of the Athens Olympics organisers ATHOC Gianna Angelopoulos and hosts of other dignitaries, as well as 30,000 spectators from among the ordinary public.
As the white-clad ‘priestesses’ performed the ritual choreographed by Maria Hors with perfect timing, the torch tendered by high priestess Thalia Prokopiou to the curved mirror used to trap the sun’s rays blazed forth bravely, in an omen of hope for the delay-dogged Athens Games.
The flame was then carried to the first torch-bearer, Greek champion javelin-thrower Kostas Gatsioudis, who carried it and passed it on to the next runner in line, Russian Olympic medallist Alexander Popov.
The ceremony marked the start of the first phase of the Olympic Torch Relay, a seven-day run organised by the Greek Olympic Committee that ends on March 31. In this time, the Olympic Torch will travel through the Peloponnese and other areas in Greece before arriving at the Panathenian Stadium in Athens, where it will remain until June 3 and the start of its global journey throughout the world.
The international Olympic Torch Relay is the first one that is truly global, visiting 34 cities on all five continents – including Africa and South America for the first time in history. The Olympic Flame will return to Greece on July 9 to continue its journey through the country and arrive back at the Panathenian Stadium on August 13 for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games.
The ritual on Thursday began with the raising of the Olympic and Greek flags and the recital of the poem ‘The Light of Olympia” by Takis Doxas.
Those present were then addressed by Olympia Mayor Ioannis Skoularikis, who was visibly moved and said that he envisioned Olympia as a ”global city, a centre of spirit and culture”.
He was followed by IOC president Jacques Rogge, who stressed that the Games, more than ever before, symbolised peace and the Olympic Truce.
”For a few moments, thousands of people in every city in the world will be able to see the Olympic spirit. Today, more than ever, we must be united. All together for the good of the Olympic ideal and of peace, for the good of the world.”
The head of the Greek Olympic Committee Lambis Nikolaou stressed that in times of blind violence and unprecedented insecurity it was hard to revive classical values, but that the Olympic ideal could help in this direction.
”The lighting of the flame revives a past that we Greeks have never ceased to consider familiar,” he said.
ATHOC chief Gianna Angelopoulos said the day was a celebration for Greece.
”The sacred flame will for the first time in its history blaze on all five continents. For the first time in Africa and Latin America. And we hope that this light will light up people’s hearts and inspire them. Our country can say with pride that many of the values conceived by Greeks inspire and lead the world. We call on all the nations of the earth to come to Greece with us for the start of the Athens Games,” she said.
In statements to reporters afterwards, Angelopoulos said she was completely satisfied with the ceremony and stressed that Greece was celebrating both its independence anniversary and the symbolic start of the Olympic Games.
”From here, in Olympia, I want to once again repeat our commitment that the Olympic Games in Athens, the Olympic Games of Greece, will be unique. We are working very hard for this and we will continue to work hard right to the end,” she underlined.
She noted that Olympia would play an important part in highlighting and promoting the uniqueness of the Greek Olympics, since ATHOC had persuaded the IOC to stage the men’s and women’s shot put events at Olympia’s ancient stadium.
”This is yet another way to promote this sacred spot throughout the world and add another dimension to the authenticity of the Greek Games,” she said.
Angelopoulos also underlined that the Athens Games will be safe.
”We are aware of the new conditions that exist worldwide, of the difficulties and problems that have arisen, and we are taking all necessary measures in cooperation with the government, the IOC and our international partners,” she said.
The emphasis on security was echoed by the draconian measures taken at the torch-lighting ceremony on Thursday, which security forces were treating as a ‘dry run’ for the Games in the summer.
Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on Thursday issued an invitation to people all over the world to attend the “the best and safest Olympic Games” that will take place in Athens in August.
Karamanlis issued his planet-wide invitation immediately after a ceremony for the lighting of the Olympic Torch in ancient Olympia, where the original Games of antiquity were held.
“Today, here in Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games, begins the first part of the flame’s journey throughout the world. The Greek light, the values and ideals of Olympism create from today and on five continents on the planet, a chain of people who adhere to the values of peaceful coexistence, noble competition and good sportsmanship.”
“In 141 days, the flame will light the skies of Attica, at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Greeks join together to send out this message to all the world: We invite you and expect you at this great celebration of sports and culture. We invite you to the best and safest Olympic Games there have ever been,” Karamanlis said.
Three new museums have opened their doors to the public in ancient Olympia, in ceremonies attended by Alternate Culture Minister Fani Palli-Petralia, Deputy Culture Minister Petros Tatoulis, former culture minister Evangelos Venizelos and other officials.
The opening ceremonies for the new Archaeological Museum of Ancient Olympia, the Historical Museum of the Olympic Games of Antiquity and the Archaeological Museum of Ilida were held on Wednesday evening.
The current ministers warmly thanked the culture ministry’s previous administration for its work in creating the new museums, which they described as modern and functional.