VICTORIA, British Columbia (Reuters) - The Olympic flame arrived in Canada on Friday, beginning a 45,000-km (28,000-mile) trek that will see it crisscross the country before it arrives at next year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The flame was handed to Canadian Olympic champions Catriona Le May Doan and Simon Whitfield, the first torch bearers, during a ceremony rich in Canadian aboriginal symbolism in the Pacific Coast city of Victoria, British Columbia.
“This is for all of Canada, we’re overwhelmed,” speedskater Le May Doan said after the event, which drew roughly 5,000 people to the muddy lawn of the British Columbia Legislature and along the relay route through the streets of Victoria.
The 106-day run will be the longest domestic torch relay in Olympic history, involving some 12,000 torch bearers and passing through 1,037 communities before the flame’s arrival at the 2010 Games’ opening ceremony on February 12.
The flame, enclosed in a lantern, was flown to Canada from Greece on a military aircraft and delivered to the ceremony by traditional canoes manned by chiefs of aboriginal Indian nations from the Victoria and Vancouver areas.
There were snags in the made-for-television event, including trouble igniting the caldron. Whitfield joked that he and Le May Doan also feared for a moment they had broken the torch when it made a loud clunk during their run.
Organizers say the C$32 million ($30 million) relay will increase interest and support for the Vancouver Games, the third time that Canada will have played host to an Olympics.
As Canada struggles to emerge from recession, a Harris-Decima poll for the Canadian Press this month found that 72 percent of Canadians felt hosting the Games had more benefits than drawbacks. But in the host province of British Columbia, that dropped to just 50 percent.
Canada’s torch run is not expected to draw the same controversy that surrounded the international event leading up to the 2008 Beijing Summer Games but security is nonetheless heavy.
Some anti-Olympic groups have threatened to disrupt the national relay to press complaints over issues such as poverty and aboriginal rights -- action on which, they say, is being sacrificed to pay for an event that benefits corporate sponsors.
Under steady rain and a heavy police presence, about 250 protesters staged a noisy march that forced relay organizers to reroute the torch run toward the end of the day.
The marchers chanted “Whose Streets? Our Streets” and carried placards that read “Homes Not Games” as they wheeled along a mock torch.
Spectator Jim Campbell of White Rock, British Columbia, said he understood the complaints but he still found the torch run inspirational.
“I think it will give everyone a lift,” Campbell said.
The flame will be transported by logging truck, surfboard, airplane and dog sled at points during the relay, which will take it to Canada’s Arctic, Pacific and Atlantic coasts.
The torches that will be used in the Olympic run are made of stainless steel and an aluminum compound, weighing 1.6 kg (3.5 pounds). Each is 94.5 cm (37.2 inches) in length.
Vancouver organizers say the torch’s sleek, curved design symbolizes the imprint left by winter sports but Canadian media reports have also noted that when held horizontally the white torch resembles a marijuana cigarette.
Reporting by Allan Dowd; Editing by Peter Galloway and John O'Callaghan