Paris 2024 Olympic flame lit in Greece at ancient birthplace of the Games

The sacred flame for the Paris 2024 Olympics was lit Tuesday in ancient Olympia, birthplace of the ancient Games, setting off an epic three-month torch relay to the July 26 opening ceremony. 

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Cloudy skies prevented the traditional lighting, when an actress dressed as an ancient Greek priestess uses the sun to ignite a silver torch.

Instead, a backup flame was used that had been lit on the same spot Monday, during the final rehearsal.

The torch relay will culminate with the lighting of the Olympic flame in the French capital at the Games’ opening ceremony. Paris will host the summer Olympics for a third time after 1900 and 1924.

“In these difficult times we are living through, with wars and conflicts on the rise, people are fed up with all the hate, the aggression and negative news they are facing day in and day out,” International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach said in his speech.

“We are longing for something which brings us together, something that is unifying, something that gives us hope. The Olympic flame that we are lighting today is the symbol of this hope.”

The flame will be officially handed over to Paris Games organisers in Athens’s Panathenaic stadium, site of the first modern Games in 1896, on April 26 after an 11-day relay across Greece.

It will then depart the next day for France on board a three-masted ship, the “Belem”, and will arrive on May 8 in Marseille, with up to 150,000 people expected to attend the ceremony in the southern city’s Old Port.

Marseille, founded by the Greek settlers of Phocaea around 600 BCE, will host the Olympic sailing competitions.

The French torch relay will last 68 days and will end in Paris with the lighting of the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony on July 26.

Officials on Tuesday stressed that the Paris Games will set new milestones, following the legacy of the other two prior Olympics held in the French capital.

“The Olympic flame will shine over the first Olympic Games inspired by our Olympic Agenda reforms from start to finish,” Bach said. 

“These Olympic Games will be younger, more inclusive, more urban, more sustainable. These will be the very first Olympic Games with full gender parity, because the IOC allocated exactly 50 percent of the places to female and male athletes,” he said.

Paris Olympics chief organiser Tony Estanguet noted that women took part for the first time in the Paris 1900 Games.

For the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic imposed toned-down events for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and 2022 Beijing Winter Games, the flame-lighting ceremony was back with full regalia and scores of spectators.

Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou, French sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo were present at the ceremony.

American mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato delivered the Olympic anthem. 

A 17,000-kilometre journey

The torch harks back to the ancient Olympics when a sacred flame burned throughout the Games. The tradition was revived in 1936 for the Berlin Games. 

During the 11-day relay on Greek soil, some 600 torchbearers will carry the flame over a distance of 5,000 kilometres (3,100 miles) through 41 municipalities.

Nana Mouskouri, the 89-year-old Greek singer with a worldwide following, has been invited to perform at the ceremony at the all-marble Panathenaic Stadium on April 26, when Paris 2024 organisers are due to receive the flame.

The following day, the flame will begin its journey to France on board the 19th-century three-masted barque Belem, which was launched just weeks after the Athens 1896 Games.

Ten thousand torchbearers will then carry the flame across 64 French territories.

It will travel through 400 towns and dozens of tourist attractions during its 12,000-kilometre (7,500-mile) journey through mainland France and overseas French territories in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean and Pacific before forming the centrepiece of the Paris Olympics opening ceremony.

The ceremony is planned to be held on the river Seine – the first time it has not been held in the Games’ main stadium.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday said it could be moved to the national stadium in the event of a security threat.

Macron said instead of teams sailing down the Seine on barges, the ceremony could be “limited to the Trocadero” building across the river from the Eiffel Tower or “even moved to the Stade de France”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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