Originally created 04/01/04

Olympic flame reaches Athens before global journey



ATHENS, Greece -- The flame for the Athens Games arrived in the host city amid Olympic-level security Wednesday before it begins its global journey.

Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou - the last torch bearer in the flame's six-day journey around Greece - entered the marble stadium followed by a group carrying the flags of the more than 200 nations expected to compete this summer. More than 15,000 spectators stood and applauded.

Thanou then lit an elevated cauldron in the white marble Panathenian stadium, which will host archery and the marathon finish at the Aug. 13-29 games. The flame was surrounded by actresses dressed as ancient priestesses who took part in the lighting ceremony on March 25 in the birthplace of the games in southern Greece.

The flame will burn in Athens until June 4 when it starts a global trek across six continents and 27 countries.

The flame's arrival in the heart of Athens was a chance for authorities to test Olympic security measures, which include closing off some nearby areas and blanketing the streets with more than 1,500 police. Security personnel were hidden in parks, stationed atop buildings and undercover amid the crowds.

"I am convinced ... that the Olympic flame will inspire the hearts once more of people to have faith in ideals and renew their love of timeless values," said Lambis Nikolaou, head of the Greek Olympic Committee. "I know, of course, that the international circumstances are anything but favorable."

The ceremony took place despite a 24-hour nationwide strike by Greece's largest labor union that halted all mass public transportation. Workers were at the site until the last hours in a reminder of the huge delays in preparations.

"Greece links the past of the Olympic Games with their present and future," chief 2004 organizer Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, told the crowd before lighting another cauldron outside the stadium.

Mayor Dora Bakoyianni said the Athens flame sends "a message of peace - the message of fierce, yet harmless, competition."

Greece is spending more than $800 million to safeguard the games and is working with a seven-nation advisory group, led by the United States and Britain.

About 50,000 police, soldiers and other personnel will guard the games. More than 1,400 security cameras and aerial surveillance by helicopters, a blimp and AWACS aircraft are also planned, while a no-fly zone will be imposed around Olympic venues and other sites. The government has also asked for NATO's assistance.

"I believe wholeheartedly in the power of utopia - the utopia that is and remains the driving force of history for the overthrowing of barbarity," Nikolaou said.

The horseshoe-shaped arena - also known as the Kalimarmaro, or good marble, stadium to most Greeks - has spectacular views of the Acropolis and the craggy Lykavittos Hill. It can hold up to 60,000 spectators on bench-style rows. Archaeologists also cleaned and refastened many of the stadium's marble slabs.

Prince Albert of Monaco said he felt "privileged" to have been a torchbearer during the initial leg of the relay in Greece.

"The Olympic torch has such an incredible meaning and unites people in a way that probably no other symbol does right now," said the prince, who has competed as an Olympic bobsledder. "That's a tremendous feeling and wonderful ceremony to be a part of."