CULTURE

Apollo blesses Olympic Flame-lighting ceremony

On the best day of spring, March 25, a day laden with significance for Greeks as they commemorate their struggle for independence, the Olympic Flame was lit at the traditional ceremony amid the spring flowers at Ancient Olympia. Officials and thousands of members of the public, including many foreign visitors, watched at close hand along with the rest of the country viewing from their homes, as was everyone around the world planning to witness the Games as of August 13. «At the historic site of Ancient Olympia, redolent of age-old memories, the Olympic Flame is to be lit today, to set out on its journey around the world and on its return, to open the 28th Olympic Games in Athens,» said Lambis Nikolaou, president of the Greek Olympic Committee. Athens 2004 Organizing Committee president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki spoke in Greek and French of the great significance of the Olympic Games’ return to the place were they were originally held, the challenge of «uniting the whole world in Athens,» and the torch relay around the world. «With every torchbearer, every country becomes a bearer of the message of peace, noble rivalry and cooperation in the spirit of the Olympic ideal,» she said. Later, both Nikolaou and Angelopoulos-Daskalaki exchanged the traditional gifts – a pot for Gianna, a silver cup for Lambis. As Angelopoulos said, before stepping down from the podium, «we have both fulfilled a life promise.» International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge drew attention to the fact that Greece was in the world spotlight, at the crossroads of five civilizations, symbolized by the five intertwined circles of the Olympic logo. «We respect the tradition of the truce that used to be observed in antiquity and we welcome the right of everyone, men and women, healthy and infirm, rich and poor, to take part in the Olympic Games,» he said, continuing in Greek to thank «our friends the Greeks for their excellent cooperation.» The ceremony took place in the stadium, where the officials and President Costis Stephanopoulos sat on chairs ranged on the grass of the ancient site, the other visitors and press in a fenced-off area, and a strong police contingent in evidence everywhere headed by chief Fotis Nasiakos. A special mention must be made of the cameramen and the director of the live broadcast. A wild pear tree in bloom right behind the emerald jacket of the Athens 2004 president lent its own brilliance to the spring scene, along with the anemones and clover, butterflies and birdsong. The olive branch carried by the first torchbearer was cut by a schoolboy from Gerakas. Fortunately, the program did not include other official speeches, and so it was time for the god Apollo to hear the high priestess’s prayer at the Altar of Hera where the flame was lit, to the sound of a drum beaten by Maria Hors, the first actress who played the role of high priestess to the flame-lighting ceremony in 1936 for the Berlin Games. A student of the great Koula Pratsika, Hors has volunteered her services to choreograph the ceremony. The current high priestess, Thalia Prokopiou, invoked the ancient prayer to the «Sacred Silence,» holding the torch. »Apollo, god of the sun and god of the idea of light, send us your rays to light the torch for Athens,» she intoned, holding the torch in the center of the concave mirror, igniting the flame. To the sound of flutes and rattles playing an ancient melody under the watchful eye of Maria Hors, the young women dressed as priestesses in robes designed by Laloula Chrysikopoulou enacted a scene from a sixth-century-BC vase. Seven priestesses holding a purple robe slowly entered the stadium to warm applause and performed a slow dance of joy, holding white or soft yellow veils that waved in the breeze. It was the moment when the high priestess lights the torch borne aloft by the first torchbearer, javelin-thrower Costas Gatsioudis, although a second attempt was necessary. The first torchbearer began the first leg of the torch relay to loud applause, even from the policemen on guard. Many a tear was wiped away! Images such as these move not only Greeks but also foreigners studying our history. May the Olympic Flame be the steady light that shines throughout the great challenge of the Games that are only 139 days away. The ceremony was brief as President Stephanopoulos, who had brought his grandson with him, Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis, accompanied by his wife Natasha, and the other officials had to get back to Athens for the military parade marking Independence Day. At 3.30 p.m. they were all on the podium in Syntagma Square in front of Parliament House and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the parade.