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Countdown to Rio begins with lighting of Olympic flame

The official countdown to the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro has begun with the lighting of the Olympic flame in Greece. This kicked off the torch relay leading up to the start of the Olympics in early August.

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Olympic torch lit in Greece

An actress portraying the high priestess conducted the ceremony under a blazing sun at Olympia, the site of the ancient Olympics on Thursday. She lit the flame shortly before noon local time, using the light of the sun passing through a parabolic mirror at the temple of Hera.

Speaking at the ceremony, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said that the Rio Games would go ahead "in a world shaken by crises" but that these Olympic Games will be a message of hope in troubled times - and the flame will carry this message into all corners of Brazil, and indeed, all the world."

The ceremony kicked off the Olympic relay through Greece, which in a gesture to Europe's worst migration crisis in decades will pass through the refugee camp of Elonas in Athens later this month.

The flame is to be handed over to the Brazilian organizers of the Summer Games at the Panathenaic stadium in Athens on April 27. Beginning on May 3, the torch relay is then to continue towards Brazil, visiting 500 cities in 100 days, before arriving at the Maracana Stadium for the ceremony that will open the Rio Games on August 5.

Thursday's ceremony and the start of the relay were welcome diversions for the organizers, whose preparations for the Games have been overshadowed by a government crisis, which could lead to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, who cancelled her trip to Olympia.

Organizing committee chairman Carlos Nuzman, who represented Brazil at the ceremony, alluded to the crisis in his speech, saying that the lighting of the torch "brings a message that can and will unite our dear Brazil, a country that is suffering much more than it deserves in its quest for a brighter future."

Thursday's ceremony marked the 80-year anniversary since the first relay, which was introduced by the Nazi organizers of the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin.

pfd/jh (SID, Reuters, AFP)

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