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Olympic torch begins world odyssey in Sydney
Updated: 2004-06-04 15:08

The Olympic torch began its five-continent voyage 70 days before the Athens Olympics opening ceremony with Cathy Freeman setting off on the Australian leg of the relay.

Greek community leader Michael Diamond lights his torch from the Olympic cauldron in Sydney's Botany Bay June 4, 2004. The Olympic flame is visiting Sydney on the first leg of its 35-day world tour, visiting 34 cities in 27 countries before arriving for the opening ceremony in Athens on August 13. [Reuters]

Freeman, the 400-metre Olympic champion and face of the last Olympics in Sydney in 2000, took possession of the Olympic flame and set off amidst thousands of cheering Sydneysiders at the landmark Opera House on Sydney Harbour.

Sydney is the first of 33 cities around the world where the symbol of the Olympic Games will visit in the countdown to the lighting of the flame in the Olympic cauldron in Athens on August 13.

The torch touched down on a chartered Boeing 747 dubbed Zeus just before dawn and was taken to the Opera House where an official ceremony featuring Greek Australian schoolgirls acting as 'goddesses' carrying olive branches and painted Aboriginal dancers symbolised the union of two ancient civilisations.

A choir sang the Olympic hymn in Greek and New South Wales state Premier Bob Carr officially welcomed the Olympic flame to Sydney, home of one of the most successful modern Games four years ago.

"I believe, we all should believe that in the heart of humankind there burns a flame like this one," Carr told the gathering as the sun rose over Sydney.

"A flame of understanding that wishes no-one ill-will, that meets on equal ground in honour of contest where no blood is shed and no race is cheated, where the laurels go to the swift and strong."

Greek flags fluttering among the crowd underlined the sizeable Greek community in Australia, where according to census figures there are almost 287,000 citizens either born in Greece or with at least one Greece-born parent among the 20 million population.

There was a reminder of the heightened state of security in the intervening years since the last Olympics with the presence of a police launch in Sydney Cove, a number of helicopters hovering overhead and extra police numbers around the Opera House site.

Freeman, who lit the Olympic flame at the Sydney Games opening ceremony, then took possession of the torch from an Athens official.

Australia's 31-year-old aboriginal sporting darling proceeded down the steps of the Opera House and around the Sydney Cove precinct to the first changeover with former Olympic champion swimmer Susie O'Neill.

O'Neill ran to a Olympic fund-raising breakfast where she in turn passed the flame on to Paralympic wheelchair champion athlete Louise Sauvage.

" I'm really proud, very proud to be here today carrying the flame and hopefully uniting the world," Freeman told reporters.

"I'm very proud of my history, my Olympic history, not just because I won a gold medal in Sydney, just because I'm an Olympian and all of the messages that the Olympic movement are all about are really special to me."

The torch will be relayed around Sydney throughout Friday between Australian sporting figures and citizens, including Olympic greats, Dawn Fraser, Raelene Boyle and Kieren Perkins.

An Olympic canoeist was to sail the flame by dragon boat to Sydney Olympic Park where the final torchbearers will hand over to former Australian Test cricket captain and Australian of the Year Steve Waugh for the lighting of the cauldron just after sunset.

The flame will then be flown by charter jet to Melbourne, home of the 1956 Olympics and said to be the third largest Greek-speaking city in the world outside of Athens and Thessalonki, for more festivities on Saturday before it heads to Tokyo and then Beijing, which is to host the 2008 Olympics.

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