More than 11,000 will carry the flame

Updated: March 25, 2004, 3:00 PM ET
Associated Press

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece -- The flame that will burn at the Athens Olympics began its round-the-world journey Thursday under unprecedented security that included metal detectors and commandos hiding in laurel groves.

The ceremony was resplendent with tradition but shadowed by the fears terrorism has cast over the games.

"Because of extremist phenomena and uncontrolled fanaticism, we are living under unrivaled conditions of insecurity that paralyze and exhaust us," said Lambis Nikolaou, president of the Greek Olympic Committee.

Nikolaou spoke moments before the flame was lit by the sun's rays using a concave mirror at the ancient sanctuary where the Olympics were born 2,780 years ago.

More than 6,000 spectators -- all screened by police -- rose as the first torch bearer, Greek javelin champion Costas Gatzioudis, took the flame from an actresses in the role of a priestess from antiquity. Gatzioudis held the sleek olive wood-and-magnesium torch in one hand and an olive branch in the other as he jogged from the ancient stadium, whose hills were covered by red poppies and lavender wildflowers.

The possibility of rain raised the prospect of using a flame ignited in an earlier rehearsal ceremony, but the weather cleared and the sun peered from behind fast-moving clouds.

The lighting ceremony is nearly identical for every Olympics. But the Athens flame -- lit on Greek independence day -- carries added significance.

Athens must overcome huge construction delays and coordinate a record security network. The International Olympic Committee has sharply increased pressure on organizers to drop borderline projects and concentrate on essentials for the Aug. 13-29 games.

"It was in Olympia that everything began ... and today everything is going to begin again for Athens," IOC president Jacques Rogge said at the ceremony, which was organized without any apparent glitches.

The modern games were revived in 1896 in Athens by French baron Pierre de Coubertin, whose heart is entombed in a memorial in Ancient Olympia, about 200 miles from Athens. The Olympics were born in Olympia in 776 B.C. and held every four years until the Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished them in 393 A.D. after Christianity took root and he deemed the games pagan.

The shot put will take place Aug. 18 in Ancient Olympia in the first Olympic competition at the site in more than 1,600 years.

The actress Thalia Prokopiou led more than two dozen women dressed in flowing robes in the lighting ceremony at the ruins of an altar to the goddess Hera. She carried the flame into the stadium in an urn.

It then set ablaze the torch of the javelin athlete. The second runner, Russian swim champion Alexander Popov, took over and began a relay that will include more than 11,000 runners in 27 countries in its first global voyage. It will pass through Africa and South America for the first time.

"Whether we live in a rich or disadvantaged country, the flame will unite us all," Rogge said.

Commandos with binoculars and automatic weapons stood under laurel trees and scanned crowds. The measures offered a possible glimpse of what's in store for the Athens Games, which has budgeted a record $800 million for security and will be bolstered by NATO planes and warships. Some, however, believed the spirit of the flame ceremony was compromised by the efforts to protect it.

"I think the security measures are excessive," said the mayor of Ancient Olympia, Yiannis Skoularikis. "Of course, measures must be taken, but the message of the ceremony is one of peace."

The first leg will weave through Greece before its scheduled arrival March 31 at the marble Athens stadium that hosted the first modern Olympiad.

The flame begins its worldwide 46,800-mile voyage June 4. All past Summer Olympic cities are on the list as well as Beijing, the 2008 host. In the United States, those stops include Los Angeles, St. Louis and Atlanta.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press