Yachtsman Ben Ainslie was the first torchbearer as the Olympic flame began its 70-day journey around Britain and Ireland yesterday ahead of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
With the Atlantic Ocean behind him at Land’s End, England’s most southwesterly point, the triple Olympic gold medallist waited while the flame was flown in by a Royal Navy search-and-rescue helicopter.
Lieutenant Commander Richard Full carried the flame off the helicopter in a golden lantern, posed briefly for photographers, and took it a short distance to light the torch that Ainslie was holding in the bright morning sunshine.
Ainslie then set off, barely breaking into a jog as he let some of the 3,500 spectators lining the route touch the golden torch whose design has led it to be nicknamed the “cheesegrater.”
After traveling barely 300m, he passed on the torch to 18-year-old Anastassia Swallow, a surfer who is hoping that her sport will one day become an Olympic discipline.
Over the next 10 weeks, the torch will travel 12,875km (8,000 miles) through England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and will also visit the Republic of Ireland.
About 8,000 people — one for every mile of the route — are set to take part in the torch relay as it heads for the Olympic Stadium in east London for the opening ceremony on July 27.
Ainslie, who just a day earlier won a sixth world title in the Finn class as he steps up his efforts to win a fourth Olympic gold, said it had been a special moment for him to start the relay in his home county of Cornwall.
“I’m really very proud for the whole nation,” said Britain’s greatest Olympic yachtsman, who wore the number 001 on his white London 2012 top.
“It was pretty emotional, so much effort has gone into getting the Olympics in London and it means so much to everyone involved,” he said.
On its first leg, the torch was to be carried through Cornwall to the city of Plymouth.
On its 70-day odyssey, it will travel through 1,019 cities, towns and villages and visit landmarks such as Stonehenge.
From June 3 to June 7, it will go to Northern Ireland and then the Republic of Ireland — the only country outside the UK on the route.
No overseas legs of the relay have been planned this year, after those before the 2008 Beijing Games were hit by protests against China.
The flame was lit in Ancient Olympia in Greece on May 10 and was handed over to the British delegation in Athens in a rain-sodden ceremony on Thursday.
It was flown to Britain on board a golden British Airways plane renamed the “Firefly” for the occasion, accompanied by soccer star David Beckham and Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and a former Olympian.
Beckham had the honor of lighting the first torch at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall on Friday.
In contrast to the shoestring operation when Britain last hosted the Olympics in 1948, just three years after World War II ended, this year’s relay is a big-budget affair, with parties and public events at each of its stops.
The oldest runner is scheduled to be a 100-year-old woman, while Olympians past and present, and soldiers injured in Afghanistan, will also take part.
However, the London 2012 organizers wanted the bulk of people taking part in the relay to be unsung heroes who have helped their community, individuals involved in sport and younger people.