Olympic flame handed to Paris as it prepares to leave Greece on historic sailing ship

The Belem will take the flame to Marseille to begin its journey around France

Water Polo athlete Ioannis Fountoulis lights the cauldron. Reuters
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The Olympic flame is set to begin its voyage from Greece on a historic sailing ship after the torch was handed over to the organisers of Paris 2024 in Athens.

The Belem, a French three-masted sailing ship built in 1896, will take the torch from Piraeus to Marseilles on Saturday. The torch was ignited in a cauldron during a traditional ceremony among the ancient ruins of Olympia in southern Greece, where the games were founded.

After a journey across Greece, it has been burning in a cauldron in front of the 2,500-year-old Parthenon temple, the iconic citadel that dominates the Athens skyline.

At the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, the site where the modern Olympics were first opened in 1896, the torch was passed on to the Organising Committee of the Paris Olympics 2024.

An elaborate ceremony saw the last torchbearer, Tokyo 2020 water polo silver medallist Ioannis Fountoulis, light a cauldron from which a “high priestess” lit the final torch.

The flame will now spend the night at the French embassy before being taken to the Belem for its voyage to Marseille.

After the ship arrives, it will begin a relay around France and visit overseas departments and regions of France, including New Caledonia and French Polynesia.

Some 6,000 police will be deployed for when the flame arrives, said Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin.

He added that the more than 1,000 boats that have signed up to sail with the Belem along the coastline before it arrives in port would all have been inspected and the area "demined" during the day.

Mr Darmanin said an elite tactical unit, bomb disposal teams, nautical police officers and an anti-drone team would be in place to secure the Old Port.

The extra officers will be mobilised on top of local firefighters and police, meaning security will be even tighter than when Pope Francis visited the city in September.

The culmination of its journey will see it light the flame in the Olympic Stadium that will burn throughout the games.

The Belem began its working life as a merchant ship after being launched in Nantes and was then converted into a pleasure boat by a British owner.

In 1980, the Belem Foundation was set up to the preserve the vessel as part of France's maritime heritage and its operation as a training ship for young people.

The pageantry which accompanies the flame is meant to provide an ineluctable link between the modern event and the ancient Greek original on which it was initially modelled.

It begins when an actor, playing an ancient Greek priestess, holds a silver torch containing highly combustible materials over a concave mirror.

The sun’s rays bounce off every inch of the burnished metal half-globe and come together at one extremely hot point, which ignites the torch.

The event happens inside the archaeological site at Olympia, before the ancient temple of Hera – wife of Zeus, king of the Greek gods, whose own ruined temple lies close by.

Updated: May 02, 2024, 8:12 AM