Originally created 12/20/97

Flame relay begins after bad weather prevents full ceremony



ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece AP -- The flame that will burn at the Nagano Winter Olympics got off to a soggy start Friday in the ancient birthplace of the games.

Rain and near freezing temperatures forced officials to use a flame lit earlier in the week to ignite the Olympic torch.

Shivering as they conducted a ritual ceremony in the foggy ruins of the temples of Hera and Zeus, 18 women dressed as high priestesses handed the torch to Vasillis Dimitriades, a Greek skier who was the first runner in a relay that will reach Nagano, Japan, Feb. 7.

Before arriving in Athens, the torch will travel to two ski centers in southern Greece and leave the country for Japan on Monday. In Japan, 1,200 runners will carry the torch through all of the country's 47 prefectures from Jan. 6 to Feb. 7.

Rain and sporadic snowstorms in the mountains around this idyllic valley forced Greek and Japanese Olympic officials to light the flame last Monday, using the sun's rays reflected in a concave mirror.

"Zeus, give peace to all the people of the world and wreath the winners of these sacred games," said Maria Pambouki, the woman playing the high priestess, as she handed the torch to the first runner.

Instead of using the burnished steel mirror to light the torch, Pambouki used a flame burning in a clay urn.

About 1,000 Japanese tourists were on hand to witness the ceremony. They crowded on a hill high above the temples and ruins to watch.

"We have been looking forward to the day when the Olympic flame would again burn in Japan," said Tasuku Tsukada, the mayor of Nagano. Japan last was the host for the Winter Games at Sapporo in 1972.

Tsukada said Japan "will celebrate the arrival of the Olympic Flame in grand style."

Two members of the 2000 Sydney Summer Games also witnessed the last such ceremony to be held here before their Olympic flame is lit.

The Olympics were held here for over 1,000 years after they were founded in 776 B.C. The Roman emperor Theodosius abolished them in 394 after Christianity took root.

The modern Games were revived in Athens in 1896 with the efforts of French Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who was honored in a special ceremony during the torch lighting. Athens will be the site of the 2004 Games.