Philip Barker: Even British-style weather fails to dampen Athens handover of Olympic Flame
Friday, 18 May 2012
Although London will host the Games for an unprecedented third time, this particular ceremony was a first for London. The flame is traditionally taken to Athens before it is passed onto the next host city, but this did not happen in 1948, because of civil unrest in Greece.
Although a stop in the Greek capital had originally been planned, organisers were forced to cancel plans at the eleventh hour. The flame therefore headed by sea from Katokolo to Corfu and then to the Italian port of Bari to begin its overland journey across Europe. Only once since has there not been a handover ceremony, curiously that was in 1984 after a dispute between the Greeks and the organisers of the Los Angeles Games who wanted to charge $3000 to run a kilometre.
Though some remain unhappy that runners in the UK will be charged to retain their torches, logistical details make it an expensive undertaking. For example, there were 16 vehicles in the convoy just in Greece.
Beneath darkening skies, the impressive Presidential guard of Evzones paraded into the stadium wearing the traditional Fustanella or pleated skirts. The Athens Philharmonic Band sounded the Presidential welcome for Karolos Papoulias and offered a pleasing link back to the first Games of the modern era. Their predecessors had been part of the massed orchestra which premiered the Olympic hymn by Spiros Samaras. Here it was performed by a children's choir.
Children were a key theme throughout, just as they had been in London's bid for the Games themselves. Local youngsters trooped giant Greek and Union flags into the stadium.
They were joined by five other Greek children, all of whom had participated in ceremonies at Olympia. These including brothers Karolos and Errikos Tsezanas who presented olive branches to their British counterparts, before five white doves were released in a gesture to symbolise the desire for peace.
Given the conditions, it was probably a smart choice of the organisers to choice Greece's world lightweight rowing champions Christina Giatzitzidou and Alexandra Tsiavou to carry the flame into the stadium.
Hellenic Olympic Committee President Spyros Capralos might well have found his background as a water polo player of use, had conditions got any worse.
As it was, a rainbow appeared as legendary Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas joined China's triple Olympic gymnastics gold medallist Li Ning to light the cauldron. They had been chosen to symbolise the continuity from Athens to Beijing to London. This time, after his exploits on a trapeze to light the cauldron in the Birdsnest, Li Ning kept his feet on the ground.
The Princess Royal became the first member of the Royal family to hold a 2012 torch, though the Queen used the 1948 model to light the first celebratory beacon at her Silver Jubilee in 1977.
Stadium announcer Alexis Kostalas, a regular Greek television host of the Eurovision Song Contest, even conferred a knighthood on David Beckham who escorted the flame from the stadium, but no-one really minded.
Then to the sound of traditional Greek drums which recalled the Opening Ceremony of Athens 2004, former World and Olympic windsurfing champion Nikos Kaklamanakis led the crowd in a rallying call for the Greek Olympic team of 2012. They will lead all the other teams into the Olympic Stadium at the Opening ceremony in London, just as they have done every year since 1928.
Philip Barker, one of the world's most renowned sports historians, is the author of The History of the Olympic Torch, published by Amberley last month. To order a copy click here.