Athens 2004 Olympic Games begin today

The Athens 2004 Olympics begin tonight, creating a moment in which Greece celebrates its past while showing the world that it has its sights set firmly on the future. These Games are a return home to the country that gave the world the Olympics and a coming-out celebration of a Greece that has made momentous efforts to modernize and put behind it a history of continuous political, social and economic turbulence. Tonight’s opening ceremony in the futuristic Olympic Stadium aims to unify Greece’s past, present and future. This fusion was prevalent at the last station before tonight’s ceremony, when the Olympic Flame arrived in Athens and lit an altar on the Acropolis, the symbol of Greek civilization’s golden age in the fifth century BC. «Today Greece is ready for the great moment. From this sacred place, the Acropolis of Athens, interpreting the feelings of joy, honor and pride of the Greek women and men, I welcome the athletes, the members of the Olympic family, our visitors with whom we are united in the Olympic spirit,» Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis said at the ceremony. «Now the time of the athletes has arrived, of sport and culture,» he added. «I send to all the men and women of the world a frank message of peace and fraternity. May the Olympic Flame remain alive in all our souls forever.» Today the Olympic Torch relay will leave the Acropolis at 8 a.m. and wend its way northward through Athens’s suburbs to the Olympic Stadium. Here an unprecedented international relay will end at 5.30 p.m., a few hours before the opening ceremony. The flame was lit from the rays of the sun in Ancient Olympia on March 25 and has since visited five continents, 27 countries and 35 cities, with more than 11,000 runners taking turns carrying it. With enthusiasm growing for the Games, each day has seen a new record in ticket purchases. Olympics organizers said yesterday that 92,970 tickets were sold on Wednesday, a new record over the record 89,317 sold the previous day. More than 2.7 million of the total 5.3 million tickets have now been sold. «Our revenues have reached a total of 174 million euros, while our target was 183 million euros, which means we have covered 94 percent of our target,» said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the head of the Athens 2004 Organizing Committee. International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge said he expects Athens to break even or make a small profit on its operational budget of 1.9 billion euros. This is separate from the government’s infrastructure budget. In a separate news conference, Rogge said, «We rejoice rightfully today for the completion of the preparations.» But he noted that the success of the Games would be measured at their end. «This is not yet the end, it is only the end of the beginning, but also the beginning of the end,» he said, paraphrasing the British wartime leader Winston Churchill. Yesterday, another record was broken as Athens International Airport was forecast to handle 839 flights. As more official visitors arrived, Karamanlis met with former US President George H.W. Bush at a reception at the US Embassy and met also with Ecumenical Patriarchate Vartholomaios. Today Karamanlis will meet with British PM Tony Blair and his Turkish, Bosnian and Ukrainian counterparts. President Costis Stephanopoulos will host a lunchtime reception for VIPs.

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