Sunshine and tears at Ancient Olympia flame rehearsal

Sun Sep 29, 2013 7:47am EDT
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By Karolina Tagaris

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece - (Reuters) - Dressed in long, cream robes, priestesses praying to the Greek sun god Apollo bathed in warm sunshine at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics on Saturday in the final rehearsal for the flame that will burn at the Sochi Winter Games.

Amid the ruins of the Doric temple to goddess Hera, a high priestess played by Greek actress Ino Menegaki swooped gracefully to the ground and, as the sun's rays bounced off a concave mirror, lit the torch within seconds.

As she invoked Zeus to bestow peace on earth, pride mingled with a sense of despair among Greeks watching the ceremony who have seen their country slide in and out of political turmoil in the three years since the country's economic crisis erupted.

"We're passing on light and peace to the whole world but we're not at peace at all," said pensioner Niki Spagourrou as she stood with her grandson among the crowd on a grassy hill overlooking the stadium where Greeks competed during the ancient Games.

Greece has been plunged into fresh political turmoil following the fatal stabbing of an anti-racism rapper by a supporter of the far-right Golden Dawn party, prompting sometimes violent protests across the country.

"Watching the ceremony saddens me. It makes me proud but it also makes me think we're giving everything, we're giving the light to the world, but we're blind," Spagourrou said in tears.

Saturday's rehearsal ended with the high priestess handing the flame and a fresh olive branch to the first torchbearer, 18-year-old Greek skier Ioannis Antoniou, who braved donning his ski suit in temperatures of more than 25 degrees Celsius.

Barring a small glitch - it took two efforts for the torch to ignite - the rehearsal wrapped up smoothly and the flame will be used as a back-up if overcast skies loom over Sunday's official ceremony.   Continued...

Greek actress Ino Menegaki, playing the role of High Priestess, passes the Olympic flame to Greek skier Yannis Antoniou, the first torchbearer of the torch relay, during a dress rehearsal for the torch lighting ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic Games at the site of ancient Olympia in Greece September 28, 2013. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis