The Rio 2016 Olympic flame is now well underway in its majestic progress across Greece before making for Brazil, but there is something about the surroundings in Ancient Olympia that make the start of the journey very special indeed. The lighting ceremony has the capacity to inspire many emotions, but for the athletes of the world it serves as the ultimate clarion call for the Games.
‘’This marks the beginning of the celebration and the last stretch of preparations’’ said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach
The first Torch bearer is always a male Greek sportsman and this time the honour fell to 2015 World champion gymnast Lefterios Petrounias. Because of competition demands, he had arrived in Olympia less than 24 hours before from Rio de Janeiro, where he had been competing in the test event, but he described carrying the Olympic Torch as "the greatest moment of my career. I feel very proud. I hope to live up to the expectations of the Greek people in Rio.'’
This will be his Olympic debut, but he will surely start favourite on the rings after his gold medal performance at the World Championships in Glasgow last year.
This was an event to blow away cynicism. Sure, Brazil has endured some negative stories during the build up but on this day at least, Rio 2016 Organising Committee President Carlos Nuzman, himself an Olympian in volleyball was clearly moved .
“To stand here in Olympia is always an honour," he said. "It is to breathe in history. The Olympic flame has always burnt at its brightest when it has led the way forward and brought countries together."
He repeated the words he had used in Copenhagen seven years ago when Rio de Janeiro won the right to stage the Olympics and Paralympics. "We believe Rio will make Brazil proud, we believe Rio will excite and unite the world," he said.
Master of Ceremonies Alexis Kostalas, a television presenter in Greece, had met challenge of his own. Barely 24 hours earlier he had lost his voice. He would not divulge the secret of his miraculous recovery but he fully lived up to his nickname "The Voice".
The spectacle he introduced was different in character from that for London 2012 four years ago. The priestesses wore turquoise gowns designed by Eleni Kyriacou, one time London fashion student and pupil of Alexander McQueen.
The young men were clad in dark olive green, the darkest colour used in a flame lighting ceremony since the 1952 event for Helsinki.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff did not attend because of impeachment proceedings at home, but in any case, it is rare for an overseas Head of State to be present. The last time it happened for a Summer Olympics was back in 2000 when the Queen’s representative in Australia Governor General Sir William Deane came to the lighting ceremony for Sydney.
The Greek President does regularly attend and Prokopis Pavlopoulos maintained a tradition. Unusually, he was accompanied by a detachment of Evzones or Presidential Guards who snapped to a smart salute as he arrived with IOC President Thomas Bach.
Ever since 1964, it has been a tradition for an actor to recite The Light of Olympia, an ode by Greek poet Takis Doxas.
The playing of Spiros Samaras’ Olympic anthem was the symbol for children from local schools appear over the hill in the formation of the five rings in an "Olympic synthesis". As other schoolchildren paraded the flags of all the competing nations , it was a reminder that a team of Refugee Olympic Athletes will compete at this summer’s Games under the Olympic flag. ‘’It will be an honour to open this door for the refugees,’’ said Nuzman.
When the Torch Relay reaches Athens next Tuesday (April 26) it will stop at the Eleonas reception centre where a Syrian refugee will run a leg with the flame. It is only a symbolic gesture but the image will go round the world.
‘’We have seen that the world is suffering from a terrible crisis, this is the responsibility of the IOC to send a signal of solidarity with the refugees who are fleeing from their homes and the violence," said Bach. "’This is why we have created the refugee Olympic team.sending a message of hope they see what refugees can achieve even in the difficult circumstances they are suffering from now.’’
Earlier in the week, Olympia’s Mayor Efthymios Kotzas had signed a call supporting the Olympic Truce. "Today more than ever before, at a time where wars still leave people without a country, the message of the Olympic Games for peace is substantial and compelling." he said.
Double volleyball gold medallist Geovane Gavio,the first Brazilian to carry the flame in 2016, was determined to enjoy every last second of the special atmosphere of the day. Watched by his wife Priscila, he dropped to one knee to receive the flame after it had visited the special monument to Baron Pierre de Coubertin. The Torch itself, made from recycled aluminium, extended in length at the moment of the exchange of flames or ‘’kiss’’.
"I will be almost walking, I want to savour every moment," Gavio told us.
The PPC Deddie company choir sang each verse of the Brazilian anthem as the flag of the host Olympic nation was raised. During the Games itself, the anthem will be abbreviated for medal ceremonies, just as it was during the 2014 World Cup, which could prompt some spontaneous accapella singing from the crowd.
"I hope so," said Gavio. "It was amazing when the music stopped but the crowd continued to sing. I can imagine that this will happen in the Maracanã."
As the crowds made their way into the ancient arena , we were joined by a spectator who knew rather more than most about what was to come. Four years ago, Ino Menegaki was at the very centre of proceedings as the high priestess who lit the flame. She had been involved with the ceremony since Atlata 1996. but this time she relished her seat with a front row view.
‘I have a great feeling of emotion because since 1996 all of my life has been involved with this ceremony," she said. "I have done the rounds. I have been the Estiada carrying the flame and, of course, the high priestess and now a circle in my life is closing. This is the first time that I have actually been able to watch it. Every ceremony is different and has something magical."
Locals from surrounding village crowded the hillside to see the flame pass. When it reached the outskirts of Olympia a group of masters students from the International Olympic Academy escorted their Dean Kostas Georgiadis. They did not wear a formal uniform but white singlets, a throwback to the early days of the Torch Relay. In fact, in 1936 and 1948, many ran bare chested or in the national Greek costume.
The flame headed from Olympia towards another ancient town with special significance. Elis was the home town of Coroebus, the first recorded Olympic champion in 776BC.
Over seven days in Greece, the flame will travel to the Ionian Islands and will will be carried by some 450 runners. It will cover 2,235 kilometres and head as far north as the city of Alexandropoulos near the Greek border with Turkey. It then heads south and will visit the town of Marathon, so steeped in Olympic lore, before it reaches Athens. It will be burn at the Acropolis Museum in Athens before it is taken to the 1896 Panathinaiko Stadium for the formal handover to Rio 2016.
There is a short visit to the Olympic Capital in Lausanne before it finally touches down in Brasilia at the start of a 95-day journey on May 3 around this massive country It will visit no fewer than 83 cities and 12,000 runners will take part.
If it has the same effect that we witnessed before the London 2012 Games, then it will, in the words of Hellenic Olympic Committee President Spyros Capralos, "carry a momentous and precious legacy from antiquity to our times. The flame holds a very special place in the heart of Greek people . We feel that it carries along its long journey, a piece of our home country.’’