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Beijing flame to be lit in a vacuum in Olympia

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An actress playing the role of a Priestess, holds the Olympic Flame during the last rehearsal of the flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on 17 October 2021. (AFP)

The Olympic flame will once again be lit in an empty stadium on Monday as it starts its truncated journey to Beijing for the Winter Games in February.

Like the ceremony in March 2020 to light the flame for Tokyo, and like those Games, which were put back a year, Monday’s ceremony is a victim of coronavirus restrictions.

“Due to the situation created by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Lighting Ceremony will be held in strict compliance with local health protocols,” the Hellenic Olympic Committee announced in September.

The ceremony is conducted at the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Olympia, site of the ancient Greek games from the eighth century BC to the fourth century AD.

Clear skies are forecast for 11.30 local time (0830 GMT) when the flame is due to be lit by the rays of the sun concentrated in a concave.

Priestess Xanthi Georgiou will light the torch from the flames.

An actress playing the role of a Priestess, holds the Olympic Flame during the last rehearsal of the flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on October 17, 2021. (AFP)

During the lighting rehearsal on Sunday, because of the cloudy sky, the Priestess had to use a fire lit the previous days while all the participants weren’t wearing their ancient costumes in order to protect them in case of rain.

This year the rehearsal on Sunday fell on the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee which is holding ceremonies to celebrate.

Greek actress Xanthi Georgiou (R), playing the role of the High Priestess, lights up the torch during the last rehearsal of the flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on October 17, 2021. (AFP)

Before the pandemic, the flame had been lit behind closed doors once, in 1984, when Greek organisers wanted to protest against the decision of the Los Angeles organisers to accept sponsorship of stretches of the torch relay in the United States.

This time the ceremony will be held in front of an audience limited to the members of the International Olympic Committee, the Greek and Chinese Olympic committees as well as the president of Greece, Katerina Sakellaropoulou, and vaccinated members of the media.

Greek skier, Ioannis Antoniou, will be the first torchbearer, followed by Li Jiajun, former Chinese track speed skater, who won five Olympic medals at 1998, 2002 and 2006 Winter Olympic Games.

Greek actress Xanthi Georgiou, playing the role of the High Priestess, lights the torch with the Olympic Flame during the last rehearsal of the flame lighting ceremony for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics at the Ancient Olympia archeological site, birthplace of the ancient Olympics in southern Greece on October 17, 2021. (AFP)

“It is one of the greatest honors for an athlete to be the first torchbearer for the Olympics, especially while I’m trying to qualify and participate in those Games,” Antoniou told AFP during the rehearsal.

Greek Vasilis Papavassiliou will be the last torchbearer of the brief relay in Olympia, as organisers have decided to skip the usual journey round the country.

“There will be no Torch Relay on Greek soil and following the Lighting Ceremony in Ancient Olympia the Olympic Flame will be transferred to the Acropolis where it will stay overnight,” they said on October 12.

They said that on the next morning it would be carried to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, a second-century arena used in both the 1896 and 2004 Games, and handed over to the delegation from Beijing 2022 to be flown to China.

Traditionally, the flame travels hundreds of kilometres round Greece, visiting fifty cities and archaeological sites, relayed by artists and athletes from around the world.

In March 2020, as coronavirus began to spread round Greece, spectators ignored health precautions and flocked to the relay.

It was abandoned on the second day after leaving Olympia in nearby Sparta, where crowds gathered to cheer Greek-American actor Billy Zane, best known for “Titanic,” and British actor Gerard Butler, who played King Leonidas of Sparta in the movie “300”.

On Monday, the flame will stay overnight in Acropolis, where on Sunday Tibet activists staged a brief protest at the Acropolis in Athens calling for the boycott of Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics as a condemnation of “China’s genocidal regime”. Greek police made three arrests.

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