The Olympics are coming! Paris 2024 torch relay begins with ‘pre-lit’ Flame and tight security

The Summer Olympics is just 100 days away, and SJA secretary Philip Barker was at the birthplace of the ancient Games in Greece to see the Flame ignited and the first Torchbearers run in the relay…

By Philip Barker, in Ancient Olympia

It is now 100 days to Paris 2024 and the kindling of the Olympic Flame will no doubt bring back memories for those among us who made the journey to Ancient Olympia in 2012.

It was also a year our immediate past President Patrick Collins was a Torchbearer.

This week, the weather here has certainly been a reminder of that memorable day, at least until Tuesday when cloudy skies made it necessary for contingency measures.

Fortunately, the Flame lit at each of the rehearsals during the previous week when the sun did shine had been conserved for just such an emergency.

It was as if Blue Peter had somehow been involved, because this was the classic case of “here’s one we made earlier”.

Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet insisted: “It doesn’t matter for us, we had a fantastic celebration today. Again, the power of the symbols were very present.”

For the reserve Flame to be needed happens only rarely at the Summer Games, Sydney 2000 was the last time and before that, Melbourne in 1956.

It happens more regularly at Winter Games and it was pretty gloomy the day the Flame was kindled for Pyeongchang 2018.

When France hosted the 1968 Winter Games in Grenoble, the weather gods were certainly not smiling and the actual passing of the Flame was even conducted indoors.

Tuesday morning in Ancient Olympia, security was very tight and that was to be expected because Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou was in attendance.

TV truck beaming pictures around the world

Then there was the memory of the last Flame Lighting Ceremony for Beijing 2022. Protesters infiltrated the ancient precincts to protest against China’s oppression of Uyghur minorities and other human rights violations.

The Flame’s journey across Greece was cancelled, ostensibly because of anti-COVID precautions.

Those with longer memories also remembered protests in 2008, initiated by the Reporters Without Borders action group for freedom of information.

There were no such difficulties this time.

Instead, we saw a remarkable and moving Ceremony which combined dance and music.

Tokyo Olympics single sculls champion Stefanos Ntouskos, visibly emotional, received the Flame from the High Priestess Mary Mina, performing the role for the first time.

The Flame was taken to the memorial that honours Baron Pierre de Coubertin before Laure Manaudou, swimming gold medallist at the 2004 Athens Games, became the first French runner.

Rather controversially, the Paris organisers have decided not to offer an Olympic Torch to each runner and only 2,000 will be manufactured in all – although around 10,000 are ultimately expected to carry the Flame.

Although organisers have promised that each participant will receive a memento, you can’t help feeling that something intangible will somehow be lost.

The arrangements for the media were slightly different this time too. There was a mixed zone in the ancient stadium.

Estanguet, French Olympics minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach all did the media rounds, along with the first Torchbearers.

Meanwhile, the Flame visited Elis, home of Coroibus, the first Olympic Champion in 776 BC.

It will spend 11 days on Greek soil before it is conveyed to Marseille by the Belem, a three-masted sailing ship.

Paris 2024 has had its fair share of problems in the build-up but I wonder if the arrival of the Torch on French soil will trigger a wave of positivity in the media, just as it did when London’s Flame arrived on that early morning at Land’s End?

Read more on ‘For The Glory of Sport’ and listen to Philip talking about his experiences at the ceremony in Ancient Olympia on the latest episode of the Anything But Footy podcast.

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