Greece Holds Olympic Flame Lighting

The flame that will burn at the Athens Games (search) was lighted Thursday amid the ruins of the ancient sanctuary where the Olympics were born 2,780 years ago.

In a ceremony held at an altar to Hera (search), a Greek goddess worshipped in Olympia during the original games, the torch was lit by a Greek actress playing the role of a high priestess.

Thalia Prokopiou, one of two dozen women that took part in the ceremony, placed a silver torch inside a burnished-steel concave mirror. The sun's rays then ignited the torch.

"Today the Olympic flame will be reborn yet again to enfold the whole world in its light. This is the day that all of us have been waiting for so eagerly," Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens organizing committee said.

During the ceremony, Prokopiou intoned a prayer to the ancient Greek god Apollo for the sun to shine.

"Apollo god of the sun and the idea of light send your rays and light the sacred torch for the hospitable city of Athens," she said.

Earlier, clouds had threatened to mar the lighting as thousands of people gathered in the ancient birthplace of the Olympics to watch the ceremony.

The Olympics were born in Olympia in 776 B.C. and held every four years until the Roman Emperor Theodosius abolished them in the year 393 after Christianity took root and he deemed the games pagan.

The games were revived in Athens in 1896 by a group led by a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin.

"The Olympic Games are returning to their country of origin for the second time in the modern era. It was in Olympia that everything began and today that everything is going to begin for Athens 2004," International Olympic Committee (search) President Jacques Rogge said.

"Whether we live in a rich or disadvantaged country, the flame will unite us all," Rogge said.

Prokopiou's flame was to light the torch of Greek javelin champion Costas Gatzioudis, who will be the first bearer in an unprecedented global relay that will carry the flame around the world.

The journey will include its first trips ever to South America and Africa. The torch will be in the United States from June 16-19, stopping in Los Angeles, St. Louis, Atlanta and New York.

More than 11,000 torchbearers will carry the flame inside Greece and around the world. More than 3,600 will take part in the international portion of its journey, which includes 27 countries and covers a total of about 48,500 miles.

From Ancient Olympia, the flame will make a seven-day trip through southern Greece and will burn outside the marble Panathenian stadium, site of the first modern games, until June 4. It will then travel to Australia.

"It's the most interesting, most fantastic torch relay which was ever organized," said Denis Oswald, the IOC official in charge of preparations for the Aug. 13-29 games.

He said organizers decided to extend the Olympic torch relay because the distance from Athens to Olympia, located about 200 miles southwest of the capital, was too short.

"They decided to make it longer and they went to the other extreme, going all around the world," Oswald said.

Greece has budgeted a record more than $800 million for security and for the first time spectators were forced to go through metal detectors.