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ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (Reuters) - The official countdown to this year's Rio de Janeiro Olympics began with the lighting of the torch at the site of the ancient Games on Thursday and organizers hoping to shift attention away from Brazil's political and financial turmoil.
On a glorious spring day with the sun burning hot above the ancient stadium in Olympia, an actress playing a high priestess lit the torch from the rays of the sun at the temple of Hera, using a parabolic mirror.
Greek gymnastics world champion Lefteris Petrounias started the domestic relay after receiving the flame, handing the torch over to Brazilian double Olympic volleyball champion Giovane Gavio.
A refugee will also carry the torch during the Greek leg of the relay in a symbolic move to highlight the plight of refugees before Brazilian organizers receive it in a handover at the Panathenian stadium on April 27 in Athens, site of the first modern Olympics in 1896.
Brazil will start its relay on May 3 in the capital Brasilia with the first of 12,000 runners, carrying it through 300 cities and towns in the 26 Brazilian states and ending in Rio on the day of the opening ceremony on Aug. 5.
Preparations, however, for the first Games in South America, have been plagued by problems and a shortage of cash for organizers as the country is experiencing its worst recession in decades.
"(The torch lighting) brings a message that can and will unite our dear Brazil," Rio Games chief Carlos Nuzman said in his speech.
Brazil President Dilma Rousseff, who canceled her trip to ancient Olympia, is facing impeachment and federal prosecutors are investigating Olympic projects for corruption.
Asked if organizers were concerned about a possible change of government, Nuzman told Reuters: I'm not a politician and I don't know. We know what we need to do, and we'll do (it)."
The crisis has paralyzed the country's ability to revive its economy from recession in the midst of a huge corruption scandal involving state-run oil firm Petrobras.
"Despite the difficulties that Brazil is facing today, the flame is a timeless reminder that we are all part of the same humanity," International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said in his speech.
"We are now in the operation phase and we see the great progress the organizing committee has made in the last year. 98 percent of all infrastructure is ready," Bach told reporters later.
"You see us very confident in general and on a day like this you see us more confident and more emotional about these Games for Brazil."
Brazil's interim sports minister, Ricardo Goncalves, echoed Bach's confidence, telling Reuters authorities were very happy because Brazil is ready.
"The Olympic Park, the venues are ready. Everything was done, so no impact," he said.
Thursday's ceremony marked the 80-year anniversary since the relay, which did not exist in the ancient Greek Olympics, was introduced by the Nazi organizers of the 1936 Berlin Games.
"Brazil will start telling the world a different story from the one we usually see in the news lately," 2016 Olympics Ceremonies producer Marco Balich told Reuters.
"The story about the celebration of humanity and the joy of life."
Editing by Ed Osmond