ATHENS, Greece – The flame that will burn at the Olympics began a final swing through Athens' suburbs Thursday as the city prepared to receive the torch at the Acropolis Hill and the 2,500-year-old Parthenon (search).
The flame left the port of Piraeu, where it had spent the night after arriving on a replica of an ancient Athenian warship — or trireme — for a trip down greater Athens' coastline. Ferries blared their horns in a deafening welcome chorus as the flame went past newly built Olympic venues to the ancient Temple of Poseidon (search) at Cape Sounion.
"It just feels great to be part of this. I am very lucky," said Greek weightlifter Valerios Leonidis, who carried the torch to the hilltop temple.
After being carried by 247 torch bearers it will head for the Acropolis after dusk for an official reception by Greece president and prime minister. Friday, it will leave the Acropolis for a short trip north to the main Olympic Stadium complex, where it will stay throughout the games.
Home from a worldwide journey, Athens' Olympic flame arrived in the capital Wednesday for a neighborhood tour which organizers hoped would spur a late recovery in ticket sales.
As the flame weaved around ancient monuments and blue-collar districts, thousands of Athenians turned out to cheer local celebrities and ordinary volunteers whose relay covered part of the original marathon course and a dozen neighborhoods.
Folk dance troupes, brass bands and women dressed as ancient Greek priestesses joined flag-waving onlookers in greeting the relay runners.
Before stopping for the night, the flame was carried on the replica of a 2,500-year-old Greek warship to Piraeus, near Athens.
"This was really something. I'm so glad I took part," Greek pop singer Anna Vissi said after her 400-meter run. "It's like I was carrying a piece of Greece with me. I love it."
Former American track star Carl Lewis was slated to carry the flame later Thursday before an Olympic cauldron is lighted on the Acropolis. Supermodel Naomi Campbell was among those set to carry the torch on its final stretch before it reaches the Olympic stadium Friday.
Since it was lit March 25 by the sun's rays at Ancient Olympia (search) — birthplace of the ancient games — the flame has traveled an unprecedented 46,800 miles through 26 countries on a chartered jet named "Zeus," including first-time appearances in Africa and South America.
Highlights included stops at the Great Wall of China and the host of celebrities handed the wood-and-titanium torch, from soccer legend Pele and Hollywood star Tom Cruise, to South African statesman Nelson Mandela.
The Greek leg through 29 cities and six major archaeological areas could provide a last-minute boost in Olympic enthusiasm, hurt by years of difficulties caused by construction delays and security fears.
Athens organizers announced Wednesday they have sold half of the 5.3 million tickets available for the Olympics, and that following a surge in interest over the past two weeks.
"People really feel that the games have arrived ... The torch relay has created a great atmosphere," said Marton Simitsek, a senior games official who ran Wednesday.