The countdown to this summer’s London Olympics started with the kindling of the Games torch by the sun’s rays in Ancient Olympia on Thursday, sparking a relay that will culminate with the lighting of the Olympic stadium’s cauldron at the opening ceremony on July 27.
On a warm and sunny day at the site of the ancient Olympics, actress Ino Menegaki, playing the role of a high priestess, needed only a few seconds to ignite the iconic torch with the help of a parabolic mirror in the traditional ceremony.
The relay’s first torchbearer, Spyros Gianniotis, a Greek man born in the northwest British city of Liverpool and a swimmer who won gold in the 10km open-water event at last year’s world championships, started the seven-day Greek leg of the relay before the flame is handed over to London organizers on May 17 and flown to Britain a day later.
“With this ceremony we begin the final countdown to a dream that came to life seven years ago in Singapore, when London was selected to host the 2012 Games,” International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge said in a brief speech.
This is the last torch ceremony of his presidency, as Rogge steps down next year after 12 years in charge.
“The energy that passes from the sun to the Olympic flame will light a torch that will travel from this birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games to the country that invented modern sport and the spirit of fair play, heralding the opening of the 2012 London Games on July 27,” the Belgian surgeon told Olympic, London and Greek officials inside the stadium where the ancient Games were held.
Several thousand spectators also watched the ceremony from the grassy slopes hugging the ancient sports arena.
Dubbed the “cheesegrater,” it is perforated with 8,000 holes that represent each person who will carry it on the British leg of the torch relay.
Its triangular shape symbolizes the three times that London has been awarded the Games, in 1908, 1948 and 2012; the “Faster, Higher, Stronger” motto of the Olympic movement; and the sport, education and culture triple vision of the 2012 Games.
The gold-colored torch is made up of an inner and an outer aluminum alloy skin held in place by a cast top piece and base.
Laser cutting of 8,000 circular holes into each torch was done at a rate of 16 every second — the lack of such technology in the past would have prevented such a torch from being used for the Olympics.
The torch weighs 1kg, including the burner and gas canister, and stands 0.8m high.
London becomes the only city to have received the Olympic flame twice — the first time when the British capital hosted the 1948 Games. Britain’s capital also hosted the 1908 Games, but the torch lighting ceremony and relay were only introduced for the first time for the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
“I feel incredibly excited and I think it’s a very, very big moment,” London Games chief Sebastian Coe said.
Coe, a twice 1,500m Olympic gold medalist, visited Olympia in 1975 as an 18-year-old tourist, hardly expecting to be back in 37 years to watch the torch being lit for an Olympics hosted by the UK.
“For me, it really links what I did at Los Angeles and Moscow [Games] with the ancient Games. I think for me this is probably the moment that what I did in ’80 and ’84 properly comes into context,” he said.
The British leg of the relay will travel 12,800km around the country, taking in 1,018 villages and the 1,085m summit of Mount Snowdon, one of the highest points in the UK.