ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece – The flame for the Vancouver Olympics was successfully lit by the sun's rays in an ancient ceremony Thursday, heralding the start of the torch relay for the 2010 Winter Games.
The sun shone just enough over the fallen temples at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics for a Greek actress in a pagan priestess' white gown and sandals to focus its rays on a silver torch using a concave mirror.
The flame will burn at the Feb. 12-28 Vancouver Games, following a torch relay across Canada and a shorter run in Greece.
"More than just a sporting event, the Games offer us a unique moment to serve the cause of humanity and celebrate the human spirit," Vancouver Organizing Committee CEO John Furlong said.
Bad weather disrupted the meticulously choreographed ceremony for the last three Winter Olympics — Turin, Salt Lake City and Nagano — and officials had to use backup flames kindled at rehearsals.
In addition to good weather, Thursday's ceremony also benefited from a lack of protesters this time, even though Vancouver relay officials had been worried that activists would be on hand to protest against seal hunting in Canada.
Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Games, pro-democracy and Tibetan activists protesting China's human rights record unfurled a banner in Olympia's ancient stadium during the lighting ceremony, and tried to stop the torch relay in several cities around the world.
The protests led the IOC to scrap international torch relays, and dozens of police were stationed at the archaeological site Thursday.
IOC president Jacques Rogge said the Olympic torch conveyed a global message "of friendship and respect."
"The Olympic torch and flame are symbols of the values and ideals which lie at the heart of the Olympic Games," Rogge said, as hundreds of spectators looked on from the stadium's grassy banks.
Greek giant slalom skier Vassilis Dimitriadis, 31, was the first torchbearer to run out of the ancient stadium after accepting the flame from Nafpliotou. After an eight-day journey across Greece, the torch will be handed over to Canadian officials at the restored ancient Panathenaean Stadium in Athens on Oct. 29.
It will reach Canada on Oct. 30 for what organizers say will be the largest ever national relay, starting in Victoria, British Columbia, and involving 12,000 torchbearers.
Furlong said the Vancouver organizing committee wanted "to be sure no Canadian is denied the right to dream and celebrate."
Over 106 days, the relay will span Canada, being flown as far north as the Alert forestry station in Nunavut, which at some 500 miles from the North Pole is the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world.
Although cauldrons were lit during the ancient games, held in Olympia from 776 B.C. to 394 A.D, the torch relay is a modern addition to the Olympics. It made its first appearance during the 1936 Berlin Games, and its Winter Games debut was at the Innsbruck Olympics in 1964.