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Sunshine and tears at Ancient Olympia flame rehearsal

Greek actress Ino Menegaki, playing the role of High Priestess, passes the Olympic flame to Greek skier Yannis Antoniou, the first torchbear
Greek actress Ino Menegaki, playing the role of High Priestess, passes the Olympic flame to Greek skier Yannis Antoniou, the first torchbear

By Karolina Tagaris

ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece - (Reuters) - Dressed in long, cream robes, priestesses praying to the Greek sun god Apollo bathed in warm sunshine at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics on Saturday in the final rehearsal for the flame that will burn at the Sochi Winter Games.

Amid the ruins of the Doric temple to goddess Hera, a high priestess played by Greek actress Ino Menegaki swooped gracefully to the ground and, as the sun's rays bounced off a concave mirror, lit the torch within seconds.

As she invoked Zeus to bestow peace on earth, pride mingled with a sense of despair among Greeks watching the ceremony who have seen their country slide in and out of political turmoil in the three years since the country's economic crisis erupted.

"We're passing on light and peace to the whole world but we're not at peace at all," said pensioner Niki Spagourrou as she stood with her grandson among the crowd on a grassy hill overlooking the stadium where Greeks competed during the ancient Games.

Greece has been plunged into fresh political turmoil following the fatal stabbing of an anti-racism rapper by a supporter of the far-right Golden Dawn party, prompting sometimes violent protests across the country.

"Watching the ceremony saddens me. It makes me proud but it also makes me think we're giving everything, we're giving the light to the world, but we're blind," Spagourrou said in tears.

Saturday's rehearsal ended with the high priestess handing the flame and a fresh olive branch to the first torchbearer, 18-year-old Greek skier Ioannis Antoniou, who braved donning his ski suit in temperatures of more than 25 degrees Celsius.

Barring a small glitch - it took two efforts for the torch to ignite - the rehearsal wrapped up smoothly and the flame will be used as a back-up if overcast skies loom over Sunday's official ceremony.

On Sunday, Antoniou, who hopes to compete in the Games, will run with the flame to the monument where the heart of modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin is buried before handing the flame to Russian ice hockey player Alex Ovechkin.

The flame will then begin a seven-day journey across Greece's mainly mountainous northern regions before it arrives in Moscow on October 6 for the longest relay in the history of the Winter Games, through the hands of 14,000 torchbearers.

The flame will travel more than 65,000 km across the country by foot, on sleighs, in hot air balloons and even a space shuttle as Russian cosmonauts plan to take an unlit torch on a four-day spacewalk in November.

The journey had been designed to bring the flame within one hour of 90 percent of the Russian population, organizers said.

Regional authorities have declared a state of emergency in the area around Sochi because of flooding and mudslides and Russia has come under fire by gay activists over a law banning "gay propaganda".

Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, has promised a "brilliant" Games which will showcase how far Russia has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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