The Olympic Flame, a symbol of hope in a troubled world, is lit for the Athens Games

The focus of Greece’s long-awaited Olympic year enjoyed a brief but welcome shift of both geography and theme yesterday, from the charged atmosphere of the host city to the (normally) tranquil olive groves and open-air archaeological site of Ancient Olympia in the western Peloponnese, where the Olympic Flame for the 2004 Athens Games was lit at a sunny and breezy midday ceremony attended by thousands and sent on its solitary way. The keepers of the Flame face an especially severe challenge this year in delivering the Flame’s usual message of peace, unity and hope to an unusually troubled world struggling to cope with escalating violence and governed increasingly by fear. This somber reality, however, did little to stifle the words of optimism that punctuated the speeches (in three languages) accompanying the hour-long event, which was set mainly in Olympia’s fourth-century-BC stadium. Bridging the centuries International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge noted both the opening-of-Olympic-year and the circle-coming-round themes: «It was in Olympia that everything began, and today that everything is going to begin for Athens 2004,» while Athens organizing head Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki noted that the relay «honors and extends the ancient traditions that gave birth» to the Games. There was also a more recent historical linkage, as the first modern Games, of 1896 and also in Athens, kicked off on March 25. Other speakers included Lambis Nikolaou, president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee which has organized the first, brief leg of the relay; and Yiannis Skoulourikis, mayor of Olympia, which will host one event, the shot put, in August. Among the featured guests were Greece’s president and its prime minister, Costis Stephanopoulos and Costas Karamanlis, doing double duty on this, Greece’s national day, and Athens Mayor Dora Bakoyannis. Given the occasion, the attendees and the timing (coming two weeks to the day from the Madrid bombing attacks that killed nearly 200 commuters in the Spanish capital), security was drum-tight. As is customary, yesterday’s ceremony also featured two dozen Greek actresses berobed in costumes styled after the presumed dress of antiquity, who «lit» the Flame via a parabolic mirror at the Altar of Hera and accompanied it to the nearby stadium, where it was touched to the first torch. This was carried off proudly by Greek javelin thrower Costas Gatsioudis, a former world silver medalist whose exploits on the field have been undercut by injury-related frustrations during Olympic years. He then passed the fire on to Russian swimming veteran Alexander Popov, owner of five Olympic medals and aiming for more this summer. Eleven thousand others will also carry the Flame. Where it’s going Yesterday launched a route called «Pass the Flame – Unite the World,» which is unsurpassed in both length and duration, and increasingly even in security worries, as with every aspect of the 2004 Games. It came more than four-and-a-half months prior to the Games. And it kicked off a worldwide relay that will touch soil on all the permanently inhabited continents, taking in not only the well-trod path of Europe, North America, and Asia, but Africa and South America for the first time (Antarctica, though it sports its own year-round scientific live-ins nowadays, remains off the agenda, for now). For all its worldly expanse, this year’s relay is unique in that, rather than winging the Flame off for Games in distant lands, it is the first time that Greece has lit the Flame all for itself. At the 1896 Games, there was a torchlight parade in downtown Athens but no relay from Olympia. As is customary, the Flame will travel by single runners in brief (300-400 meter) relay stints, ending up at the main Olympic Stadium in Kalogreza for the dramatic peak of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies on August 13. This year’s relay, however, comes in stages. The first «leg,» launched yesterday, will last but a week, as the Flame winds through the Peloponnese and up to Athens. It will burn at the Panathenaic Stadium for some two months, until June 3, when it will be flown to Australia, which hosted the 2000 Games at Sydney, for the start of its second, «world leg» (run by Athens 2004, the Games organizers) that will take in all prior Summer Games sites, finally passing through the Balkans and Cyprus for a return to Greece in early July. The third and final «national leg» will then commence, taking the Flame from Athens all the way to Athens via all 54 Greek prefectures, ending up at Spyros Louis Stadium and the Opening Ceremonies. All told, a quarter of a billion people will be positioned to see it pass by. And where it’s from The fire element has a symbolism all its own, representing a force of nature, but one that has been tamed by man for his own purposes. Fire (although not in relay form) also held pride of place at the Games of Ancient Olympia, with a flame burning at the Altar of Hestia, goddess of the hearth, and also at the Altar of Zeus, where a major sacrifice of oxen was carried out during the Games. The Zeus altar may even have been the initial finishing point of the running race before the Games expanded and moved to the grassy-knolled Olympia stadium seen today. As with many benign or even benevolent symbols, the torch has transcended its origins, which were marked with some controversy. The first such relay was held in 1936, thanks to an initiative by Germany’s Carl Diem, an international sports figure (who later helped found the International Olympic Academy in Olympia in 1949) who was also instrumental in organizing the 1936 Olympics in Berlin – a Games more known for its Aryan themes and Nazi triumphalism than for the first Flame. Fortunately, it was the latter which has proved by far the more lasting. Another German, Ernst Curtius, had been the original excavator of Olympia from 1875 to 1881, so the German link with the ancient site has a strong precedent – partly counterbalancing the French links, especially through Pierre de Coubertin, a founder of the modern Games, that are emphasized in official Olympic histories and sealed at the Coubertin Grove in Ancient Olympia, where the baron’s heart is buried and where the Flame made its first, brief stop. The Flame for the Winter Games has had a rockier road to normality. Though the first Olympic Winter Games were held in 1924 (so designated only after the fact), Olympia was not used as the site for their lighting ceremony until 1964. Before that it was actually lit in Norway, and once in Rome. Athens’s Games are on their way. It would be well worth it not to prejudge this mammoth task too harshly, and to accentuate their possibilities and promise as well as the known difficulties.

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