Olympic flame within reach of London Games chiefs

Associated Press
An unidentified torchbearer, left, passes the flame to Rena Sotiriadou during the Olympic flame relay for the 2012 London Olympics, in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens, Thursday, May 17, 2012. The Olympic flame will travel to London, where the Summer Games will take place from July 27-Aug. 12. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
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ATHENS (AP) — The Olympic flame is coming, despite the pouring rain in Athens.

A cauldron in front of the Parthenon has been lit and the flame was burning brightly Thursday, just hours before it was to be handed to the organizers of the London Olympics to begin its journey to London.

Although the Olympics begin on July 27, taking possession of the flame has a special meaning for the organizers, who move now to delivering the games they promised.

"Once the flame is lit, for all intents and purposes, the Games start," London organizing committee chair Sebastian Coe told reporters in Athens.

"This is really the beginning of the journey," Coe added. "I think people recognize there's no going back now."

The flame was lit last week at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, and has been making its way around Greece in a relay. Much of downtown Athens is being closed to traffic Thursday evening in preparation for the big handover.

Soccer star David Beckham headlines the dignitaries attending the sunset ceremony. Princess Anne will also be there. Mayor Boris Johnson, famous for his rumpled appearance, has trimmed his shaggy blond mop for the occasion.

"The eyes of the world are swiveling to London," Johnson said with delight — only to wonder aloud whether swiveling is really a word.

The handover also marks a poignant moment for Greece as well. Lighting the flame has a special significance this year coming as it does in a time of substantial political uncertainty and economic hardship.

The Greeks like to point out that the Olympics — while a terrific idea — were not the only concept that they dreamed up.

Take Dominique Molin, a 52-year-old former French teacher who ventured out to see Princess Anne tour a center where horses are used to help disabled children. Molin noted that Europe absorbed many ideas championed by the ancient Greeks — like democracy — to say nothing of honoring its art and culture. And even despite their economic hardships now, some 80 percent of Greeks in a recent vote declared that they wanted to stay in the 17-nation eurozone.

"We belong to Europe," Molin said. "We want to be part of it."

She thought the torch relay also helped the country's battered image.

"It shows that there are things still working here," she said.

The flame will fly Friday — with its own seat and security agent — on British Airways Flight 2012, an Airbus painted gold. Shielded in a miner's lantern, the flame will first land at a naval air station in Cornwall.

Once in Britain, the flame heads off Saturday a 70-day relay — an Anglophile's dream that ventures through hill and dale to embrace everything from cool Britannia to Stonehenge.

There are still some mysteries yet. The final torchbearer hasn't even been discussed, Coe said.

But there is one person you can cross off that list. Coe, a former gold medalist, has said it won't be him.

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