ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The Olympic flame was handed to organizers of the PyeongChang Winter Games on Tuesday, and it will now head off on a 100-day journey across South Korea before the Opening Ceremony on Feb. 9.
PyeongChang organizing committee president Lee Hee-beom said the Games would be an Olympics of “peace and harmony,” despite tension between the host and its reclusive nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea.
Dressed as a high priestess, actress Katerina Lehou led the 90-minute ceremony in Athens at the Panathenian Stadium, a horseshoe-shaped marble venue where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.
A cauldron was lit by Greek skier Ioannis Proios following performances by singers, dancers and acrobats from Greece and South Korea. The flame, placed in a lantern, was handed over to Greek Olympic Committee president Spyros Capralos, who passed it to Lee.
The South Korean leg of the relay will involve 7,500 torch-bearers and visit 17 cities and provinces across the country.
Preparations for the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games are being held amid escalating tension on the Korean peninsula following nuclear and missile tests by North Korea. Lee has promised the games will be safe, but he made no mention of the crisis in his remarks in Athens.
“We are ready to welcome the world to PyeongChang. The construction of competition and non-competition venues is already complete,” Lee said, moments before being handed a white-and-gold torch with the Olympic flame. “PyeongChang 2018 will be an Olympic Games of peace and harmony.”
South Korean organizers said two back-up paraffin lanterns were also being used on the flight from Athens to Incheon, South Korea, and were being escorted by three fire wardens.
Tuesday’s ceremony was held after the flame was lit in Ancient Olympia on Oct. 23. That was followed by a torch relay around Greece.
She then passed the flame to the first relay runner, Greek skier Apostolos Angelis, who ran with it for a short distance before handing over to former Manchester United soccer player Park Ji-sung, a South Korean.
From the verdant, rain-soaked valley of Ancient Olympia, where the Games of antiquity were held for more than a thousand years, the flame will course through Greece for eight days and reach South Korea on Nov. 1.
Despite tensions between the U.S. and North Korea — with which the south remains technically at war — organizers insist there is no fear for the Feb. 9-25 Winter Games.
“We want the international community to understand that we are committed to hosting a safe and secure” Games, organizing committee chief Lee Hee-beom said during Tuesday’s lighting ceremony.
The ski resort town of PyeongChang lies about 50 miles south of the world’s most heavily armed border that divides the two Koreas.
The International Olympic Committee has also stressed that there is no cause for concern. IOC president Thomas Bach made no direct reference to the tensions Tuesday, only saying during his speech that the Games “stand above and beyond all the differences that divide us.”
Normally, the flame-lighting ceremony involves the priestess offering a token prayer to the dead pagan gods of Olympia — a major ancient Greek sanctuary — before using a bowl-shaped mirror to focus the heat of the sun’s rays on her torch.
But with rain forcing officials to huddle under umbrellas, there was no hope.
“Sorry for the rain,” Greek Olympic Committee chief Spyros Capralos joked.