ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (Reuters) - The torch relay for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics got underway on Thursday, with the sun's rays igniting the flame during a brief break in the clouds at the ancient Olympic stadium.
It was the first time in the last four winter Games torch-lighting ceremonies that the back-up flame from the previous day's dress rehearsal at the site of the ancient Olympics did not have to be used.
Actress Maria Nafpliotou, playing a High Priestess calling on sun God Apollo, knelt in front of a parabolic mirror reflecting the sun's rays that seconds later ignited the silver torch as the clouds parted above the site of the ancient Games and the Temple of Hera.
The ceremony, watched by hundreds of schoolchildren and tourists as well as dignitaries, kicked off an eight-day torch relay throughout Greece, including the country's ski resorts, before a handover to Vancouver Games organizers in the Panathenian stadium in Athens, site of the first modern Olympics in 1896.
On October 30 the flame will arrive in Canada for the biggest-ever domestic relay, covering 45,000 kms and ending in Vancouver on February 12, the date of the Games opening ceremony.
"By February 12, it will have visited over 1,030 Canadian communities, received 119 Aboriginal blessings, touched three oceans and been held by a mosaic of Canadian people representing all ages, cultures, religions and languages," Vancouver Games chief John Furlong said in a brief speech.
"Today we create a bridge between ancient Olympia and young Canada."
Thursday's peaceful events were a far cry from the Beijing 2008 Games torch-lighting ceremony which was marred by human rights protests.
After the global protests that followed Beijing's torch relay, Olympic chiefs decided to scrap international relay legs.
"The longest national Olympic torch relay in history will create a spirit of global community and world citizenship," said International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge.
The relay's first runner, Olympic skier Vassilis Dimitriadis, dressed in full winter gear on a warm autumn day, set off from the ancient Olympic stadium which was hosting the winter Games ceremony for the first time.
Dimitriadis briefly stopped at a marble memorial where the heart of the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, is buried, before starting off the 2,000-km journey through Greece.
"This is something we will never see again," said tourist and Vancouver native Nadine Ho, who has signed up as a volunteer for the February 12-28 Olympics.
Additional reporting by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Clare Fallon