Seeking some relief from the country’s economic and political woes, Greeks sat on the stone steps of the ancient stadium in Athens on Thursday to watch the ceremonial handover of the Olympic flame to the organizers of the 2012 London Olympics.
They cheered the Greek national anthem. They cheered 88 schoolchildren belting out “God save the Queen. They went nuts when U.K. soccer star David Beckham was announced.
But they really roared when they saw the fire.
“The flame belongs to the world,” London Olympic chairman Sebastian Coe said. “The arrival of the flame in the host nation is a clarion call to the athletes and young people in more than 200 nations and territories preparing to gather for the London 2012 Games.”
There were jokes about the pouring rain – more London than Athens surely – with London Mayor Boris Johnson joshing that everyone would just have to get used to it. But the clouds actually pushed back for a few short minutes, giving the robed dancers, the drummers and the decorative Greek guards a chance to parade around, pompom shoes bouncing.
The flame was passed. No soaked cauldron.
“Once the flame is lit, for all intents and purposes, the Games start,” Coe told reporters.
The flame was lit last week at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, and has been making its way around Greece in a relay. Despite a political crisis, a financial debacle and the unusual weather, Greeks were heartened by their eternal link to the Olympics.
“I am Greek and I am proud to be Greek,” said Konstantina Giannpoulos, 27, a drenched physical education teacher who clutched a plastic blue-and-white Greek flag. “I want to honor my country.”
Beckham headlined the U.K. dignitaries attending the twilight ceremony and there was a hearty guffaw among Britons as he was introduced – incorrectly – as “Sir David.” He is not a knight.
Princess Anne, a former British Olympic equestrian, took possession of the fire.
“The eyes of the world are swiveling to London,” Johnson said with delight.
The handover also marked a poignant moment for Greece as well. Greeks like to point out that the Olympics – while terrific – were not the only enduring concept they dreamed up.
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, 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, the majority of Greeks in a recent poll say they want 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 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 at the nose. Shielded in a miner’s lantern, the flame will first land at a naval air station in Cornwall, before the Royal Navy flies it to Land’s End, the furthest point west in England.
Once in Britain, the Olympic torch heads off Saturday a 70-day relay – an Anglophile’s dream tour that ventures through hill and dale to embrace everything from cool Britannia to Stonehenge. The journey ends at London’s Olympic Stadium for the July 27 opening ceremony.
Some 8,000 torchbearers will carry the fire, mostly local people who have worked to better their communities. Olympic organizers hope that by giving the torch to community heroes, they will bring the spirit of the games to a country not necessarily willing to receive it.
The London Olympics has cost 9.3 billion pounds ($14.6 billion) – a large sum for a country grappling with economic austerity – and some in Britain worry about what happens when the games end Aug. 12. The future of the massive Olympic stadium, in particular, remains in doubt.
Coe acknowledges there are still many tasks to conquer and questions to resolve. He says the choice of the final torchbearer hasn’t even been discussed yet.