ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece — The flame for the 2018 Pyeongchang Games was lit at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics Tuesday, despite a brief cloudburst that disrupted the sun-reliant ceremony.
It launched a long torch relay that will culminate with the winter Games opening on Feb. 9.
“Now it will be up to Pyeongchang to keep the dynamism for the last three months of preparations,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said. “They are very well under way, the stage is set for the winter athletes of the world and we are looking forward to a successful and great Olympic Games in Pyeongchang.”
Using backup fire kept from Monday’s last rehearsal, an actress playing an ancient pagan priestess ignited the torch in front of the 2,600-year-old Temple of Hera in the southern Greek Peloponnese region.
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.
“As a sports person I have been watching the Olympics throughout my life, and I really wanted to participate, to be involved in the Olympics,” Park said afterwards. “We will show to the world … how we can organize a sports event.”
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 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the world’s most heavily armed border that divides the two Koreas.
The IOC has also stressed that there is no cause for concern. 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.
Lee said it didn’t really matter, as the last rehearsal on Monday went well — even though the priestess, the actress Katerina Lehou, had to make two unsuccessful attempts before her torch caught fire.
The ancient Games were held at Olympia from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D, after which they were stopped by Christians. However, ancient traditions point to an earlier date for sports events at Olympia, where the first traces of human settlement go back to the 3rd millennium B.C.