The Olympic torch returned to the United States Tuesday for the first time since the 1996 Games in Atlanta and was passed from one gold medalist to another before beginning a 46-state tour to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"This precious, magical flame can illuminate us all with its hope of a brighter future," said Billy Payne, who led Atlanta's effort to win the 1996 Summer Games. "In its light, you can see the promise of a world united, not divided."

The torch arrived before dawn at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport from Athens, Greece, on a Delta Air Lines jumbo jet painted for the occasion.

It was greeted by a dozen trumpeters from the Salt Lake City organizing committee who were dressed in white-and-purple cowboy hats and dusters.

Bill Spencer, a biathlete who competed in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, carried the torch off the plane along with Nikki Stone, a gold medalist in women's aerials at the 1998 Nagano Olympics. They passed the torch to six-time gold medal speed skater Bonnie Blair and her mother, Eleanor.

From the airport, the flame was headed to Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, where several hundred people gathered before 7 a.m. for a welcoming ceremony later in the morning.

The torch relay -- averaging 416 miles per day -- will visit 80 American cities with about 11,500 people walking and running with it more than 13,500 miles before its arrival in Utah for the Feb. 8 opening ceremony.

Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii are the only states not on the torch route.

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. Glick is scheduled to carry the torch Dec. 23 in New York City.

"The torch relay will hold a unique significance for all of us in the United States and around the world, and because of September 11th, new significance," said Caroline Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Salt Lake City organizers."

The 3-pound torch was designed by Sam Shelton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, who also designed the 1996 Summer Olympics' torch. It has a glass crown designed to simulate ice, with the flame emanating from deep within.

It was constructed to withstand weather ranging from minus 40 degrees to 80 degrees, including gusty wind and heavy rain, Shelton said.