ATLANTA -- Carried by a crew of gold medalists including Muhammad Ali and Peggy Fleming, the Olympic flame began a 46-state, two-month journey Tuesday to the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City Winter Games.
Starting in the last U.S. city to hold the Olympics, the Summer Games in 1996, the relay will involve 11,500 people lugging the 3-pound torches and their symbolic fire more than 13,500 miles before the Feb. 8 ceremony.
"This precious, magical flame can illuminate us all with its hope of a brighter future," said Billy Payne, who led Atlanta's Olympic effort. "In its light, you can see the promise of a world united, not divided."
The relay left the downtown Centennial Olympic Park after Ali, a boxing champion at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome, lighted a torch from a massive cauldron and passed it to Fleming, a figure skating gold medalist at the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, France.
Ali lighted the flame that burned over the Atlanta Games.
He and Fleming were joined by other Olympic medalists - cyclist Lance Armstrong, five-time speedskating champion Bonnie Blair, 1960 figure skating gold medalist Robert Paul and 1998 freestyle ski winner Nikki Stone.
The closely guarded flame arrived in Atlanta after an 11-hour flight aboard a Delta Air Lines jumbo jet painted with the words "The Soaring Spirit" and pictures of Blair, ski jumper Ryan Heckman and luger Duncan Kennedy.
Fleming and Paul, her former coach, carried the flame on the first leg of its journey through the park. From there, the flame visited Coca-Cola's headquarters, a General Motors assembly plant and Athens, Ga., before arriving in Greenville, S.C., for an evening ceremony.
Bill Spencer, a biathlete who competed in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, carried the torch off the plane along with Stone. They passed the torch to Blair.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Salt Lake officials have been promoting the Winter Games as a rallying point for the nation and an opportunity to demonstrate friendship among countries.
"Our nation is in prayer," said Mitt Romney, president of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee, noting the grieving over the 3,700 killed in the attacks and the concern for U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. The torch "binds each of us to the family of humankind," Romney said.
Among the torch bearers will be Lyz Glick, the wife of Jeremy Glick, one of the passengers aboard United Flight 93, which crashed Sept. 11 in Pennsylvania after passengers apparently struggled with hijackers. She is to carry the torch Dec. 23 in New York.
New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, baseball great Willie Mays, former NFL quarterback Steve Young and CNN anchor Paula Zahn are among 500 celebrities who will carry the torch. The rest were nominated by friends and family.
The torch also will take a spin around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Jan. 8 and visit 80 cities in all.
The torch was designed by Sam Shelton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, who also designed the torch for 1996. This year's version was built to withstand weather ranging from minus-40 degrees to 80 degrees, along with strong wind and rain, Shelton said.
The relay legs, averaging more than 400 miles, will begin at 7 a.m. each day. They will halt Dec. 24-25 in New York City for the holidays.
The torch also will travel by air three more times to Utah: from Miami to Mobile, Ala., on Sunday; from Milwaukee to Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 6; and from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska, and then to Spokane, Wash., on Jan. 24.
Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii are not on the torch route for logistical reasons, relay spokesman Mark Walker said.
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