ATHENS — The flame that will burn at next year's Sochi Winter Olympics was handed over to Russia on Saturday in the marble stadium that hosted the first modern Games in 1896.
After a six-day trek across 33 towns in Greece's mainly mountainous northern regions, the flame that was lit last Sunday by the sun's rays at the birthplace of the ancient Games in Olympia was presented to Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.
From its overnight perch on the ancient Acropolis, the flame traveled through Athens' streets before being carried into the stadium, built in 330 BC, by Greek figure skating champion Panagiotis Markouzios.
As he lit the golden cauldron encircled by priestesses in long, cream-colored, pleated robes, the crowd erupted in cheers of “Russia! Russia!”
“We are especially emotional,” Hellenic Olympic Committee head Spyros Capralos said. “The flame, for us Greeks, is a piece of our country, a part of our history and a tight bond to our ancestors.”
The flame will be flown in special safety lanterns from Athens to Moscow on Sunday and it will then begin the longest torch relay in the history of the Winter Games from the Red Square.
It will travel more than 65,000 km, looping around Russia's 83 regions on foot, in sleighs, hot air balloons and even on a trip to space, as Russia prepares to showcase its modern post-Soviet face.
More than 90 percent of the Russian population will have been within one hour of the flame before the lighting of the Olympic cauldron takes place at the stadium at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 7.
“For me it is a great honor, responsibility and pleasure to be here tonight, on the land that gave birth to the European civilization and presented the world with the Olympic Games,” Kozak said.
“On this momentous day I am telling you with certainty that our country ... will succeed in fulfilling its commitment to the Olympic movement,” Kozak added.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has vowed to deliver a “brilliant” Games to show how far Russia has come since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
But Russia has come under mounting international criticism over a new anti-gay propaganda law, which critics believe is repressive, and preparations for the Games will not be plain sailing for the Russian hosts.
Earlier in the day, a group of Greek gay activists raised the rainbow flag outside Greece's Acropolis museum in Athens.
“Russia receives the Olympic flame, a globally recognized symbol of humanitarian ideals,” the Athens-based gay rights group Color Youth said in a statement.
“Yet the laws in Russia are far from the ideals of human rights when it comes to LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-gender, queer) people, who are tortured, abused and discriminated against. We choose not to be silent this day,” it said.