Rio Olympic flame lit, torch relay begins in Olympia (video, photos)

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ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (AP) — The flame for South America’s first Olympics was kindled Thursday at the birthplace of the ancient games in Greece, heralding the start of a 15-week journey that will culminate with the Aug.5 Opening Ceremony in Rio de Janeiro.

International Olympic Committee leaders and Brazilian organizers attending the flame-lighting in the ruins of Ancient Olympia voiced strong confidence that Brazil will stage successful Games, despite a political crisis which forced Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to cancel a scheduled appearance at the ceremony.

Rousseff faces possible impeachment before the Games over alleged accounting tricks in managing the federal budget. The host country is also beset by corruption scandals, a deep recession and the Zika virus outbreak, while Games-related problems include spending cuts, slow ticket sales and delays in some venues.

Brazilian Sports Minister Ricardo Leyser said the country’s woes will have “no impact” on the Games.

Watch the full flame-lighting ceremony here.

“It will be a big party and people will forget the other problems and just focus on the Games,” he told reporters. “So I don’t think it’s really a problem for the Games.”

Carlos Nuzman, head of the Rio organizing committee, said the Olympics will help unite Brazilians and pledged that the host city “is ready to deliver history.”

“We are incredibly proud to have come so far, sailing through some of the most challenging waters the Olympic movement has seen,” Nuzman said, adding that the Olympic flame “brings a message that can and will unite our dear Brazil.”

The IOC insists that the Rio Games will be a success, maintaining that preparations are already at an operational phase.

IOC President Thomas Bach said Rio will provide “a spectacular stage” for the Olympics.

“These Olympic Games will be a message of hope in troubled times — and indeed the flame will carry this message into all corners of Brazil and, indeed, all the world,” he said. “Despite the difficulties that Brazil is facing today, the flame is a timeless reminder that we are all part of the same humanity.”

Bach said 98 percent of all infrastructure is ready and the test events are going well, adding that he is “very confident” on the Games’ success.

The flame was lit outside the 7th Century B.C. Temple of Hera in Olympia by Greek actress Katerina Lehou, in a long pleated dress impersonating a pagan high priestess. After a mock prayer to the ancient Greek gods, she used a concave mirror to focus the sun’s rays on her torch, and the ceremony continued in the ancient stadium — which was used at the 2004 Athens Games as the shot put venue.

The flame-lighting ceremony, a key part of the Olympic pageantry, dates to one of the more awkward moments of the modern Games, the 1936 Berlin Olympics conducted by Nazi Germany.

The first torchbearer, Greek world gymnastics champion Eleftherios Petrounias, took delivery of the flame and handed it to Brazilian former volleyball great Giovane Gavio at the beginning of a relay involving hundreds.

Μια στιγμή που δεν περιγράφεται με λόγια .. Τιμή κ υπερηφανια για τη χώρα μου .. no comment … Only honored and proud !! #olympia #olympicflame #1st #torchbearer #see you in #rio2016olympicgames

Posted by Eleftherios Petrounias on Thursday, April 21, 2016

The relay will traverse Greece for six days until the April 27 handover to Brazilian officials in Athens, at the refurbished ancient stadium where the first modern Games were held in 1896.

“This is the beginning of … the last stretch of the organization,” Bach said. “We’re really looking forward to the moment when this flame is finally burning in the Olympic cauldron in Rio de Janeiro.”

In a nod to the global refugee crisis, the Greek leg will include a stop at a camp in Athens that is home to 1,500 refugees and migrants trapped in Greece — one of whom will participate in the relay — while a young Syrian boy from another camp will accompany the torchbearer in a small town just north of Olympia.

For the first time at the Rio Games, the IOC will allow a group of five to 10 refugee athletes to participate, marching behind the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony. IOC officials say there are 42 potential participants, and the final selection will be made in June.

“We thought that this is the responsibility of the International Olympic Committee to send a signal of solidarity with refugees who are fleeing their homes from war and from violence,” Bach said. “We wanted to give (them) a home in the Olympic village. We wanted to give them a flag, with the Olympic flag … an anthem to identify with — the Olympic anthem.”

After a brief stopover in Switzerland, the flame will start its travels through Brazil on May 3, starting in the capital of Brasilia. Organizers say it will reach most of the vast country’s 200 million population, covering 20,000 kilometers (12,000 miles) by road and 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles) by air to reach hundreds of cities and towns in a giant effort involving 12,000 torchbearers.

In a departure from customary practice, Rio will have two stadiums: the Maracana for the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and soccer, and the Olympic Stadium across town, which will be used for track and field. After the first night in the Maracana, the flame will depart for an undisclosed downtown location for the rest of the Games.

MORE: Rio Olympic flame will live downtown — not in stadium

Images via AP and Getty:

Spectators watch the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia, Greece, Thursday, April 21, 2016. The flame will be transported by torch relay to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Olympic flame

OLYMPIA, GREECE - 21 APRIL: Actress Katerina Lehou who plays the role of high priestess passes the olympic flame to the first torchbearer and reigning world champion gymnast Lefteris Petrounias during the Lighting Ceremony of the Olympic Flame for the Rio Olympic Games on April 21, 2016 in Olympia, Greece. Torchbearers will carry the Olympic Flame from Ancient Olympia on relay through Greece for eight days before a hand-over ceremony at Panathenian Stadium in Athens. (Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images)

Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias carries a torch with the Olympic flame during the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia, Greece, Thursday, April 21, 2016. The flame will be transported by torch relay to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias carries a torch with the Olympic flame during the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia, Greece, Thursday, April 21, 2016. The flame will be transported by torch relay to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Former Brazilian volleyball player Giovane Gavio, left, receivesthe Olympic flame by Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias, right, after the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia, Greece, Thursday, April 21, 2016. The flame will be transported by torch relay to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Former Brazilian volleyball player Giovane Gavio, left, receives the Olympic flame by Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias, right, after the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia, Greece, Thursday, April 21, 2016. The flame will be transported by torch relay to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

The Olympic flame is symbolically passed from one torch to another after after the official ceremonial lighting of the flame in Ancient Olympia, Greece, on Thursday, April 21, 2016, with the former Brazilian volleyball player Giovane Gavio, left, and Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias, right. The flame will be transported by torch relay to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Former Brazilian volleyball player Giovane Gavio runs with a torch with the Olympic flame after the ceremonial lighting of the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia, Greece, Thursday, April 21, 2016. The flame will be transported by torch relay to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Olympic Games. (AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris)

When Michael Phelps raced Libby Trickett at Duel in the Pool

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At the peak of his career, Michael Phelps was upstaged in a race by a swimmer who went four seconds slower.

Australian Libby Trickett did more than hold her own against Phelps to lead off the opening event of the 2007 Duel in the Pool, a mixed-gender 4x100m freestyle relay.

Trickett, then known as Libby Lenton shortly before she got married, became the first woman to break 53 seconds, while Phelps went 48.72 in a head-to-head at the Sydney 2000 Olympic swimming venue.

“I was trash-talking … asking what he has got and telling him if he is going to bring it tonight. I think deep down he was really scared of me,” Trickett said, joking, according to The Associated Press. “Before the race he said good luck. He is a good competitor to race against, and I will remember that for the rest of my life — that I raced against Michael Phelps.”

Australia went on to win the relay by 2.49 seconds, in large part because Trickett swam .31 faster than the women’s 100m free world record. Normally, relay leadoff swims are eligible to break individual world records.

But FINA later ruled that Trickett’s time was not record eligible because the mixed 4x100m free was not an approved event. (Mixed-gender relays debuted at the world championships in 2015 and will debut at the Olympics in Tokyo next year.)

“I am a little disappointed because I know in my heart what time I swam and that time is faster than the existing world record,” Trickett said in 2007, according to Swimming Australia. “However, having said that, the disappointment can take nothing away from the fact I now know I am capable of swimming under 53 seconds and I will continue to strive to improve every aspect of my swimming.”

Trickett broke the world record officially at the 2008 Australian Olympic Trials, clocking 52.88 to take .42 off German Britta Steffen‘s mark. The world record has since been lowered all the way to 51.71 by Swede Sarah Sjöström at the 2017 World Championships.

Phelps’ time was impressive, his second-fastest 100m free at the point in his career. He raced tired, two days after that year’s world championships finished in Melbourne. Phelps earned seven golds at those worlds, and he has said 2007 was his peak, rather than 2008.

He raced strategically against Trickett, not allowing her to draft off him in the adjacent lane.

“I remember going down the first lap, and she was kind of right at my shins,” Phelps said with a laugh, according to the Los Angeles Times. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is not good.’ I knew she would jump up on the lane line and kind of drag, the smart way to do it. I remember I was going right into the 50 [meter] wall, and I turned and went completely on the other side of the lane.”

Trickett won five golds at the 2007 Worlds and another four medals at the 2008 Olympics, though Steffen edged her for 100m free gold by .04.

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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Who is Germany’s greatest Olympian?

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
Getty Images
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The combined all-time German Olympic medal total (including East Germany and West Germany) trails only the United States and Russia/Unified Team/Soviet Union. Norway owns the most Winter Olympic medals of any single National Olympic Committee, but the Germany/East Germany/West Germany sum is actually greater. A look at five of Germany’s greatest Olympians …

Kathrin Boron
Rowing
Four Olympic Gold Medals

Alternated gold medals between double sculls and quadruple sculls from 1992 through 2004, the last one as a mom, tacking on a bronze in 2008. Boron also earned eight world titles. In 19 total Olympic and world championships starts, she collected 12 golds, five silvers, a bronze and a fourth. An ankle injury kept her out of the 1988 Olympics at age 18, or else she could have been the first woman to take gold at five Olympics.

Birgit Fischer-Schmidt
Canoe-Kayak
Eight Olympic Gold Medals

Considered by some the greatest Olympian in history. Fischer-Schmidt won 12 Olympic medals (in 13 career Olympic events) and 37 world championships medals from 1979-2005, scattered among four retirements, two childbirths and the 1984 East German boycott. Fischer-Schmidt retired after earning her last two world championships bronze medals in 2005 at age 43. Had Fischer-Schmidt extended to one more Olympics in 2008, she could have been on the same team as niece Fanny Fischer, who earned a gold of her own in Beijing.

Georg Hackl
Luge
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only luger with three individual Olympic titles. Hackl was called the “Flying White Sausage” for his build and Bavarian roots, a nickname he opposed. His speed on the sled was not up for debate. Hackl finished second in singles and fourth in doubles in his Olympic debut in 1988. Then he won singles golds in 1992, 1994 and 1998 before bowing out in 2006. He then became a coach for the German team and its next luge great — 2010 and 2014 Olympic champion Felix Loch.

Claudia Pechstein
Speed Skating
Nine Olympic Medals

The only woman to compete in seven Winter Olympics. Pechstein owns Olympic titles in the 3000m, 5000m and team pursuit, the last medal of any color coming in 2006. At 48, she continues to race on the top international level, placing eighth, ninth and 11th at the world single distances championships in February, 28 years after her Olympic debut in Albertville, France. Pechstein served a two-year doping ban from 2009-11 over irregularities in her biological passport. She denied cheating and fought the ban in court for several years after its conclusion.

Isabell Werth
Equestrian
10 Olympic Medals

The most decorated Olympic equestrian with 10 medals and six golds. Werth, nicknamed the “Dressage Queen,” earned her first medals at the 1992 Barcelona Games and now, at 50, currently holds the Nos. 1 and 2 world rankings with two different horses. In 10 career Olympic events, she has never finished worse than second place. No other female Olympian can make that claim.

MORE: Most decorated U.S. female Olympian on front line of coronavirus fight

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