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Olympic flame arrives on French soil for Paris Games

Updated: 2024-05-09 09:41
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Fireworks go off as the French 19th-century three-masted barque Belem (C) arrives at the Old Port during the Olympic Flame arrival ceremony, ahead of the Paris 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Marseille, southeastern France May 8, 2024. [Photo/VCG]

MARSEILLE - The Olympic flame arrived in France at Marseille on Wednesday on board a 19th century ship in front of 150,000 spectators for a ceremony that posed a first major security test for organisers of the 2024 Paris Games.

The flame was brought to the southern French port from Greece on the three-masted Belem, 79 days before the Olympics begin.

As the ship entered Marseille's Old Port with hundreds of small boats trailing behind, planes from the Patrouille de France display team traced the Olympic rings in the sky before they returned to paint the red, white and blue of the French flag.

Fireworks tore into the sky as the Belem docked after its 12-day voyage from Greece, where the flame was lit in ancient Olympia on April 16.

Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Florent Manaudou carried the torch from the deck of the ship.

Manaudou passed it to Paralympic champion sprinter Nantenin Keita, who handed the torch to French rapper Jul to light a cauldron.

The arrival of the flame marks the start of a 12,000-kilometre (7,500-mile) torch relay across France and its far-flung overseas territories.

Organisers are hoping the first public spectacle of the Games on French soil will help build excitement after a row about the price of Olympics tickets and concerns about security.

President Emmanuel Macron praised the "unprecedented effort" of the security forces in Marseille and said after watching the flame arrive that he hoped the Olympics would bring France together.

"I want our compatriots to imagine that this is a moment of unity and that we are capable of it and that we can be proud of it," Macron said.

The chief organiser of the Paris Olympics and Paralympics, Tony Estanguet, said this week "the Games are coming home".

France, which last hosted the Olympics a century ago, sees itself at the heart of the modern Olympic movement after a French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin, revived the idea of the Games as practised by the Greeks until the 4th century BC.

After the Covid-hit edition in Tokyo in 2021 and the corruption-tainted Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, the Paris Olympics are seen as an important moment for the sporting extravaganza.

High security

In the background in Marseille, around 6,000 security forces are on duty at a time when the country is on its highest terror alert.

The torch relay will begin for real in Marseille on Thursday when Ivory Coast football great Didier Drogba, a former player for Marseille, will be one of the bearers.

Extremely tight security will be a constant feature as the torch travels through more than 450 French towns and cities, and passes by dozens of tourist attractions including the Mont Saint Michel. It will also visit overseas destinations including Guadeloupe, New Caledonia and Reunion.

Around 200 members of the security forces are set to be positioned permanently around the torch, including an anti-terror SWAT team and anti-drone operatives.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has referred to the risk of protests, including from far-left groups or environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion.

Organisers have promised a "spectacular" and "iconic" Olympics and Paralympics, with much of the sport set to take place in temporary venues around the City of Light including at the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides.

The opening ceremony for the Olympics on July 26 will take place in boats on the river Seine in a radical departure from past Games which have opened in the main stadium.

However President Macron said last month the opening ceremony could move if the security risk is too high.

All of the major infrastructure has been completed with only two new permanent sporting venues built in a bid to reduce the financial cost and carbon emissions of the global extravaganza.

The idea of the torch rally harks back to the ancient Olympics when a sacred flame burned throughout the Games.

The Paris Olympics will run from July 26-August 11, followed by the Paralympics from August 28-September 8.


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