Olympics 2016: Olympic torch begins journey to Rio

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The Olympic torch has been lit in southern Greece, kicking off the countdown to Rio 2016.

In a solemn and elaborate ceremony worthy of a “Game of Thrones” pageant, women in ancient-Greek style dresses and men in tunics performed symbolic rituals at the site of Ancient Olympia.

The Games were first held there in 776 BC and remained there for 12 centuries.

Acting the role of the high priestess, Greek actress Katerina Lechou lit the torch using a concave mirror to focus the sun’s rays, before placing it into a ceramic bowl. An olive branch was cut and a white dove released into the blue spring sky, both symbolizing peace.

The Olympic Flame burns on a torch during the torch relay, on April 21, 2016, qfter the lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame in ancient Olympia, the sanctuary where the Olympic Games were born in 776 BC. The Olympic flame was lit Thursday in an ancient temple in one country in crisis and solemnly sent off carrying international hopes that Brazil's political paralysis will not taint the Rio Games that start in barely 100 days. / AFP / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
The Olympic Flame burns on a torch during the torch relay, on April 21, 2016, qfter the lighting ceremony of the Olympic flame in ancient Olympia, the sanctuary where the Olympic Games were born in 776 BC. The Olympic flame was lit Thursday in an ancient temple in one country in crisis and solemnly sent off carrying international hopes that Brazil’s political paralysis will not taint the Rio Games that start in barely 100 days. / AFP / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

The flaming torch, which has its own Twitter account, was handed to its first torchbearer, gold medal-winning Greek gymnast Eleftherios Petrounias, before beginning its six-day relay across the country.

Another of the runners will be a Syrian refugee, who will carry the torch through the Eleonas refugee camp in central Athens — part of a conscious effort by the International Olympics Committee to highlight the plight of refugees around the world.

For the first time in history, a team of five-12 refugee athletes from multiple countries will be competing in this year’s Games. They will march behind the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony in Rio.

After its sprint through Greece, the torch will travel to Brazil on April 27 to begin a 95-day tour visiting 83 cities, 26 state capitals and 500 towns — reaching an estimated 90% of the population.

It is the first time the Games have been held in South America, but the torch-lighting ceremony comes during uncertain times for Brazil. President Dilma Roussef faces the possibility of an impeachment trial as early as May after accusations she broke budgetary laws.

Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, said in his speech at the torch-lighting ceremony that this year’s Games “will be a message of hope in troubled times”.

“In these difficult days that Brazil is facing, the flame is a timeless reminder that we all are part of the same humanity,” he said.

“May today’s lighting of the Olympic flame be another reminder to everyone to uphold the spirit of the Olympic Games and to build a better world through sport.”

The torch’s Brazilian tour will involve an estimated 12,000 torchbearers before arriving at Rio’s famous Maracana Stadium for the Games’ Opening Ceremony on August 5.

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