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Olympic torch begins unprecedented journey

| Friday, March 26, 2004

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece -- The flame that will burn at the Athens Olympics began its round-the-world journey Thursday under unprecedented security that included metal detectors and commandos hiding in laurel groves.

The ceremony was resplendent with tradition but shadowed by the fears terrorism has cast over the games.

"Because of extremist phenomena and uncontrolled fanaticism, we are living under unrivaled conditions of insecurity that paralyze and exhaust us," said Lambis Nikolaou, president of the Greek Olympic Committee.

Nikolaou spoke moments before the flame was lit by the sun's rays using a concave mirror at the ancient sanctuary where the Olympics were born 2,780 years ago.

More than 6,000 spectators -- all screened by police -- rose as the first torch bearer, Greek javelin champion Costas Gatzioudis, took the flame from an actresses in the role of a priestess from antiquity. Gatzioudis held the sleek olive wood-and-magnesium torch in one hand and an olive branch in the other as he jogged from the ancient stadium, whose hills were covered by red poppies and lavender wildflowers.

The possibility of rain raised the prospect of using a flame ignited in an earlier rehearsal ceremony, but the weather cleared and the sun peered from behind fast-moving clouds.

The lighting ceremony is nearly identical for every Olympics. But the Athens flame -- lit on Greek independence day -- carries added significance.


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