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The Olympic torch with the blessing from Apolo is en route to London

Thursday, May 10th 2012 - 19:29 UTC
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The ceremonial lighting at the Temple of Hera The ceremonial lighting at the Temple of Hera
Sebastian Coe, head of the London Olympics which start in 78 days Sebastian Coe, head of the London Olympics which start in 78 days

The flame that will burn during the London Games was lit on Thursday at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics on Thursday, heralding the start of a torch relay that will culminate with the opening ceremony on July 27.

Actress Ino Menegaki, dressed as a high priestess, stood before the 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera, and after an invocation to Apollo, the ancient Greeks' Sun God, used a mirror to focus the sun's rays and light a torch.

The triangular torch is designed to highlight the fact that London is hosting the Olympics for the third time. It also staged the games in 1908 and 1948.

The relay's first torchbearer, Spyros Gianniotis, a Liverpool-born Greek swimmer who won the gold medal in the 10-km open water event at the 2011 world championships, started the seven-day Greek leg of the relay before the flame is handed over to London organisers on May 17 and flown to Britain a day later.

The second torchbearer was 19-year-old Alexander Loukos, a Briton of Greek origin.

“With this ceremony we begin the final countdown to a dream that came to life seven years ago in Singapore, when London was selected to host the 2012 Games,” said International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge in a brief speech.

This is the last torch ceremony of his presidency, as Rogge steps down next year after 12 years in charge.

“The energy that passes from the sun to the Olympic flame will light a torch that will travel from this birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games to the country that invented modern sport and the spirit of fair play, heralding the opening of the 2012 London Games on July 27,” the Belgian surgeon said.

Olympic, London and Greek officials were seated inside the stadium where the ancient Games were held and some 5.000 spectators watched the ceremony from the grassy slopes hugging the arena.

A strong police presence around the ancient site, and in the town of Olympia, made sure the event went off without a hitch. Four years ago human rights activists briefly disrupted the Beijing Olympics ceremony.

London becomes the only city to have received the Olympic flame twice - the first time being for the 1948 Games. Britain's capital also hosted the 1908 Games, but the torch-lighting ceremony and relay were introduced for the first time for the 1936 Berlin Olympics as part of Nazi propaganda.

“I feel incredibly excited and I think it's a very, very big moment,” London Games chief Sebastian Coe told reporters.

Coe, twice a 1.500 metres Olympic gold medallist, visited Olympia in 1975 as an 18-year tourist, hardly expecting to be back in 37 years to watch the torch being lit for an Olympics hosted by Britain.

”For me, it really links what I did at Los Angeles and Moscow (Games) with the ancient Games. I think for me this is probably the moment that what I did in '80 and '84 properly comes into context,” he said.

The 70-day British leg of the relay will use 8.000 torchbearers and travel 12.800 km around the country, taking in 1.018 communities and the 1.085-metre summit of Snowdon, before ending inside the Olympic stadium on the opening day of the Games.

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