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.

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)

Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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