The Olympic flame starts its long journey

The Olympic flame began its journey to Salt Lake City yesterday, carrying with it the hope the Games can bring some solace to a nation in mourning and at war. The flame that will burn at the 2002 Winter Games was used in a traditional ceremony among the ruins of the ancient birthplace of the Olympic Games. But cloudy skies and sporadic showers prevented the ritual lighting of the flame by using the sun’s rays hitting a concave mirror. A flame ignited with the mirror during an earlier practice session was used instead. The flame had been kept burning in miners’ lamps. It was the third consecutive time – dating back to the 1998 Nagano Games – that the torch could not be lit during the official ceremony because of bad weather in ancient Olympia, about 225 kilometers (135 miles) southwest of Athens. The forebears of the Olympians, of civilization, of humanity, looked beyond themselves to find the source of greatness and of light. May we look to the eternal source to guide our world today, said Mitt Romney, head of the Salt Lake City organizing committee. The actress Thalia Prokopiou, in her role as high priestess during the ceremony, used the flame to light the Salt Lake City torch at a nearby forested grove dedicated to Pierre de Coubertin, the French baron who revived the Olympics in 1896. The first leg of the torch relay was run by Lefteris Fafalis, a Greek cross-country skier. Greek runners will carry the torch through Arachova near the ancient site of Delphi. It is scheduled to arrive in Athens today and burn in the all-marble Panathenaic Stadium, site of the first modern Olympiad. The torch then heads by plane to Atlanta on Dec. 3. The 65-day relay across the United States is scheduled to end in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8. The route passes through all the US states except Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii. Police will also accompany the flame in a sign of the heightened worries following Sept. 11, Romney said. The torch is an important symbol which we wish to protect, said Romney, who was accompanied by Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt and US Olympic Committee President Sandy Baldwin. Ancient Olympia Mayor Giorgos Aidonis hoped the torch relay will warm the hearts of people. The Olympics were held in ancient Olympia from 776 BC to 394, when the Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished them after Christianity took root and he deemed the Games pagan. The president of the Greek Olympic Committee, Lambis Nikolaou, said the flame’s long journey could convey a spirit of unity at a time when humanity is shaken by tragic events. He also announced that 17 foreign ministers, including those of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, had signed a declaration in support of an Olympic Truce during the Salt Lake City Games. The effort – spearheaded by Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou – seeks to revive the ancient tradition of suspending conflicts during the Olympics. Because of the tragic events of Sept. 11, we see this as the first time that the world has come together to heal. .. that fate has fallen upon Salt Lake City to be the place and we will be ready, Leavitt said. Romney said New York, Pennsylvania and Washington – all scenes of the Sept. 11 attacks – will be main stops for the torch in tribute to fallen citizens of the world, many redefining heroism for me and my countrymen. A decision last week by a US judge to dismiss all remaining charges in the 2-year-old bribery scandal that tainted Salt Lake City’s Games also helped to lift a cloud that had hung over the Winter Olympics. I don’t think the Olympics have ever been about men in suits. The real heart of the Games is when the Olympians begin to arrive, and you know I think the story of the bid scandal had pretty much passed from our consciousness, Romney said. He predicted that the terrorist attacks and war in Afghanistan should not severely hurt attendance at the Games. The majority of – actually over half – of our attendance comes from Utah and California so it will have a very modest impact, if any. And I choose not to think about other aircraft disruptions, Romney said. The head of the US Olympic Committee called the Games the greatest peacetime event in the whole world. The ceremony today was a symbol of that great peaceful event and we are going to have wonderful Games, Baldwin said.

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