Paris Olympics flame lit at Greek cradle of ancient games


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Even without the help of Apollo, the flame that is to burn at the Paris Olympics was kindled on Tuesday at the site of the ancient games in southern Greece.

Cloudy skies prevented the traditional lighting, when an actress dressed as an ancient Greek priestess uses the sun to ignite a silver torch after offering up a symbolic prayer to Apollo, the ancient Greek sun god.

Instead, a backup flame was used that had been lit on the same spot Monday, during the final rehearsal.

Normally, the foremost of a group of priestesses in long, pleated dresses dips the fuel-filled torch into a parabolic mirror which focuses the sun’s rays on it, and fire spurts forth. 

But this time she didn’t even try, going straight for the backup, kept in a copy of an ancient Greek pot.

Ironically, a few minutes later the sun shone.

ctress Mary Mina, playing high priestess, right, lights a torch during the official ceremony of the flame lighting for the Paris Olympics

From the ancient stadium in Olympia, a relay of torchbearers will carry the flame more than 5,000 kilometres through Greece until the handover to Paris Games organisers in Athens on April 26.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said the flame lighting combined “a pilgrimage to our past in ancient Olympia, and an act of faith in our future.”

“In these difficult times … with wars and conflicts on the rise, people are fed up with all the hate, the aggression and negative news,” he said. 

“We are longing for something which brings us together; something that is unifying; something that gives us hope.”

Ancient history

Thousands of spectators from all over the world packed Olympia for Tuesday’s event amid the ruined temples and sports grounds where the ancient games were held from 776 BC to 393 AD.

The sprawling site, in a lush valley by the confluence of two rivers, is at its prettiest in the spring, teeming with pink-flowering Judas trees, small blue irises and the occasional red anemone.

The first torchbearer was Greek rower Stefanos Douskos, a gold medallist in 2021 in Tokyo. He ran to a nearby monument that contains the heart of French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the driving force behind the modern revival of the games.

The next runner was Laure Manaudou, a French swimmer who won three medals at Athens in 2004. She handed over to senior European Union official Margaritis Schinas, a Greek.

The flame will travel from Athens’ port of Piraeus on the Belem, a French three-masted sailing ship built in 1896 – the year of the first modern games in Athens.

According to Captain Aymeric Gibet, it’s due on May 8 in the southern French port of Marseille, a city founded by Greek colonists some 2,600 years ago.

The first torch bearer, Greek olympic gold medalist Stefanos Douskos, runs towards the monument to Pierre de Coubertin.

The Belem arrived in Katakolo, near Olympia, on Monday. Lookers-on included a small, enthusiastic group of tourists from the northwestern French region of Brittany, where the ship’s homeport of Nantes is, waving French and Breton flags.

“We thought it would be a unique opportunity to see the flame lighting at the historic site of Olympia,” said Jean-Michel Pasquet from Lorient, near Nantes. “And when we also learnt the Belem would carry the flame … we said we must do this.”

But Pasquet said he’d have to watch the Paris Games from home.

“For us, it would be really very expensive, unaffordable,” to go to the venues, he said. “So we’ll watch them on television … from our armchairs.”

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