Strike a light: Olympian ceremony blows away cynicism

PHILIP BARKER reports from the start of the Olympic flame’s journey to London

Lord Coe, the chairman of London 2012, insists that the Torch relay will be a rich seam of material for journalists.

“I don’t think you are going to struggle to find some pretty extraordinary stories out there,” Coe said yesterday. “I know because I have seen the citations of the torchbearers.”

Carrying a torch for London: the Greek ceremonials at Olympia

After an early morning run,  Coe was in relaxed mood at a media briefing on the grassy slopes of the Olympic stadium. He recalled his own first visit to Olympia in 1975, just after competing at the European junior championships in Athens. He’d just boarded a train and “played the tourist”.

In previous years, the lighting of the Olympic flame has received little attention from the British media. What a contrast with the past few days.

Just to reach the village of Olympia is a marathon itself, a five-hour journey. Once arrived, though, all seemed to relish the atmosphere of the oldest Olympic stadium in the world. Even the Fleet Street tabloids were here, the combination of a Greek swimmer, Spiros Gianniotis, Liverpool-born and a one-time patron at Anfield, and 19-year-old Alex Loukas from East Ham as the first two torch bearers was too good to miss.

Loukas was one of the group who went to Singapore with the London bid team in 2005. He is of Greek heritage, so there was a pleasing symmetry to the beginning of the run. He even got to meet Jacques Rogge, the International Olympic Committee president, and ex-King Constantine of Greece.

Coe was blown away by the ritual of the lighting, an ethereal ceremony performed by “High Priestess” Ino Menegaki, in reality a classical actress in Greece. He wasn’t alone.

The bowl carrying the “sacred” flame was snuffed out by a gust. Estiada priestess Nefeli Mastradi was forced to double back to the temple to get a replacement flame, the incident receiving great play from the various broadcasters present.

For the most part though, the understated ritual here was in stark contrast to the strident and crass “2012 hours to go ceremony” we saw at Stratford last weekend. Rogge spoke of the “final countdown to London”.

Rogge said, “The energy that passes from the sun to the Olympic flame will light a torch that will travel from this birthplace of the ancient Games to the country that invented modern sport and the spirit of fair play.”

In such surroundings as Olympia, it is hard to be cynical. The kids of the village turned out in force to see the rehearsals – beats schoolwork any day. The real thing was restricted to VIPs, and a strict limitation on photographers, apparently to ensure that the television pictures were as clear as could be.

The media centre had old world charm and even free wi-fi which for the most part seemed to work. The Hellenic Olympic Committee press officers were helpful and speedy in offering answers to specific questions.

The 2012 flame spent its first night in Crete before returning to the Greek mainland. Ben Ainslie will the first to run with the flame when it leaves RNAS Culdrose in just over a week’s time.