Officials prepare to light the torch

Updated: March 23, 2004, 6:26 PM ET
Associated Press

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece -- The Olympic torch awaits a global journey that begins at the ancient temples where the games were born and ends in Athens.

All it needs now is a light.

As overcast skies cleared Tuesday above the grove at the ruins of Olympia, officials tested a burnished-steel mirror that will help light the torch using the sun's rays at Thursday's ceremony.

At the practice session, the torch was lit after being placed close to the concave mirror on an altar to Hera, a Greek goddess worshipped in Olympia during the original games, from 776 B.C. to 393.

That flame will be kept in a lamp in case bad weather prevents the torch from lighting during the ceremony, as it did in 2001 for the Salt Lake City Games. Although clear skies are forecast, organizers also have an alternative site for the ceremony, at a nearby archaeological museum.

A full dress rehearsal is scheduled for Wednesday, and about two dozen Greek actresses will take part, playing priestesses.

"It is a very big event which marks, besides the beginning of the games, the brotherhood of people and sends the message to the whole world that the flame can unite the world," Greek Olympic Committee President Lambis Nikolaou said.

The Olympics were born 2,780 years ago in Olympia and held every four years until the Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished them after Christianity took root and he deemed the games pagan. His successor, Theodosius II, had the temples destroyed in 426, and a series of earthquakes and floods buried them until the mid-19th century.

The games were revived in Athens in 1896 by a group led by a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin.

Once lit, the Olympic flame will travel around the world, including its first trips ever to South America and Africa.

It will pass through all former Summer Olympic cities -- from Berlin, where the torch relay was first introduced in 1936, to Sydney. The torch will be in the United States from June 16-19, stopping in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta and New York.

For all its muted majesty, the flame lighting ceremony also serves as a reminder to Athens organizers about how little time remains before the games, Aug. 13-29.

With just over 140 days remaining, Greeks must deal with serious delays in several key Olympics projects -- including a roof for the showcase Olympic stadium, widening the route for the marathon race and completing a light rail and tram line.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge planned to review Athens' problems when he attends the flame lighting ceremony.

The date of Thursday's ceremony was chosen for its symbolic importance in Greece: March 25 is Greek independence day and the day on the Julian calendar the first modern Olympics opened in Athens in 1896. Under the Gregorian -- the calendar used today by most of the world -- the Athens Games opened April 6, 1896.

From Ancient Olympia, the flame will make a seven-day journey through southern Greece and will burn outside the marble Panathenian stadium, site of the first modern games, until June 4. It will then travel to Australia.

Greek javelin champion Costas Gatzioudis will be the first torch bearer. He will hand it off to Russian swimmer Alexander Popov, who won two sprint gold medals at the 1992 Olympics, two in Atlanta in 1996 and a silver in 2000. Later Thursday, Russian pole vault legend Sergei Bubka will carry the torch through Elis, a town near Ancient Olympia whose residents are thought to have founded the first games.

Prince Albert of Monaco, who competed in a number of Winter Olympics, will also carry the torch before it reaches Athens.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press