London 2012: Olympic flame handed over to UK in Athens

The President of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, Spyros Capralos, passes the flame to Princess Anne

The Olympic flame has been handed over to organisers of the London Games at a ceremony beneath a rainbow in Athens.

The President of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, Spyros Capralos, passed the flame to Princess Anne, president of the British Olympic Association in the Panathenaic Stadium.

Lit in Olympia on 10 May, the flame was taken on a week-long tour of Greece.

A British delegation including David Beckham is due to fly with the torch to the UK on Friday.

It will then be carried 8,000 miles (12,875km) by 8,000 bearers in a 70-day relay ending at the Olympic Park.

The relay begins at Land's End on Saturday when triple Olympic sailing champion Ben Ainslie will be the first to carry the torch on British soil.

After criss-crossing every region of the UK, the flame will be used to light the cauldron in Stratford's Olympic Stadium at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on 27 July.

'Inspiring stories'

At Thursday's handover ceremony, crowds in the stadium stood beneath multi-coloured umbrellas as the national anthems of the UK and Greece were sung by a British school choir and a Greek tenor.

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Torch relay graphic

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Heavy rain abated and a rainbow could be seen as the flame was carried into the Panathenaic Stadium - host of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.

It was carried by Christina Giazitzidou, Greece's world champion in rowing, who held aloft an olive branch of peace in her free hand.

Celebrated athletes carried the flame around the athletics track in a relay.

The final torchbearers, Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas and Chinese gymnast Li Ning - who lit the Olympic cauldron at Beijing 2008 - ignited a cauldron in the centre of the stadium, formally ending the Greek leg of the relay.

After Princess Anne was given the flame, it was transferred to a small lantern which will be guarded overnight at the British embassy in Athens before being flown to the UK.

The British delegation in Athens for the handover ceremony included London 2012 chief Lord Coe, Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson and London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Lord Coe told the thousands-strong crowd that the Olympic flame belonged to the world, and its arrival in the host nation would be a clarion call to athletes in more than 200 nations to gather for the Games.

"The Olympic flame will visit every nation and region [of the UK], shining a light on the people, places, communities and cultures of the United Kingdom," he said. "We have found the very best in our Torchbearers, who like Olympic athletes, will inspire a generation."

The princess told the BBC earlier that the relay was likely to stoke excitement for the Games in the UK, as it had in Canada ahead of the Vancouver Winter Olympics," she told the BBC.

"When the flame arrives and the torch relay starts to get under way, that is a physical moment in terms of the process towards the Games.

Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas and Chinese gymnast Li Ning (right) light the cauldron in the centre of the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens, Greece, 17 May 2012 Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas and Chinese gymnast Li Ning (right) lit the cauldron

"Certainly in Canada they were amazed by the effect that that had and I think that may well be true for Britain as well."

Mr Johnson said the torch relay democratised the Olympic experience.

"It's lighting the touch paper of a 70-day fuse that will then go off in the great pyrotechnics of the opening ceremony," he said.

He said the key tests for London 2012 were both whether the Games were well-received, and whether they left a legacy for London and the UK.

Mr Robertson accepted that putting on the Games was a huge responsibility, but said if London 2012 was a success it would be a great advertisement for both London and the UK.

'Laid to rest'

Also attending the ceremony were London 2012 ambassador Beckham and five young people chosen by Games organisers Locog and the British Council for their commitment to sport and their role in promoting the Olympic values of friendship, excellence and respect within their school or college.

Hailing from different national regions, the youngsters are part of London 2012's Get Set education network and school linking programmes run by the British Council.

The plane, named Firefly, on which the flame will travel back to the UK The plane, named Firefly, on which the flame will travel back to the UK

After spending Thursday night at the British embassy in Athens, the flame will be brought to the UK by the British delegation on BA2012 on Friday evening, where there will be a welcoming ceremony at RNAS Culdrose in Cornwall.

The flame - symbolising purity because it comes directly from the sun - was kindled at a 10 May ceremony in Olympia by actress Ino Menegaki, playing a high priestess, who caught the sun's rays in a parabolic mirror.

That ceremony took place amid the Temple of Hera ruins, by the ancient Olympic Games stadium.

The torch was then carried 1,800 miles through Greece by 500 torchbearers on a week-long route circling the country and travelling out to the islands of Crete and Kastelorizo.

The flame was then "laid to rest" in a ceremony at the Acropolis on Wednesday.

Huge demonstrations

Ahead of Beijing 2008, the Olympic torch traversed the globe in a relay dogged by pro-Tibet, democracy and anti-China protests.

The 2012 relay has taken place with the backdrop of economic turbulence in Greece, which has been left without a government and possibly on the brink of leaving the eurozone by the financial crisis.

Greece has seen huge demonstrations of social unrest in previous months, amid efforts to reach a deal with the European Union on a bail-out for its economy.

A flame was first lit at the modern Olympics at the Amsterdam 1928 summer Games, but it was not until Berlin in 1936 that a torch relay route was set out from Greece to Germany.

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