LAND’S END (UK), May 19 (AFP): Sailor Ben Ainslie was the first torchbearer as the Olympic flame began its 70-day journey around Britain and Ireland today ahead of the 2012 London Games.
The flame arrived in Britain from Greece yesterday and was flown to Land’s End, the southwesterly tip of England, today by a Royal Navy helicopter before it was used to light the torch for the start of the 8,000 mile (12,875-kilometre) relay.
Ainslie, who has won gold medals in sailing at the last three Olympics, then walked just 300 metres, allowing some of the 3,500 spectators lining the route in the morning sunshine to touch the gold-coloured torch.
The yachtsman, wearing the number 001 on his T-shirt as the first torchbearer, then passed on the torch to 18-year-old Anastassia Swallow, a surfer who is hoping that her sport will one day become an Olympic discipline.
Ainslie, who on Friday won a sixth world title in the Finn class as he prepares for an attempt to win a fourth Olympic gold, said it had been a special moment for him to start the relay in his home county of Cornwall.
“It was pretty emotional, so much effort has gone into getting the Olympics in London and it means so much to everyone involved,” he said.
On its first day, the torch will be carried through Cornwall to the city of Plymouth.
Over the next 10 weeks, 8,000 people will carry the torch as it makes its way around the United Kingdom and heads for the Olympic Stadium in east London for the opening ceremony on July 27.
It will travel through 1,019 cities, towns and villages and visit landmarks such as Stonehenge.
From June 3-7, it will go to Northern Ireland and then the Republic of Ireland – the only country outside the United Kingdom on the torch route.
No overseas legs of the relay have been planned this year after those before the 2008 Beijing Games was hit by protests against China.
The flame was lit in Ancient Olympia in Greece on May 10 and was handed over to the British delegation in Athens in a rain-blighted ceremony on Thursday.
It was flown to Britain encased in a special lantern on board a British Airways plane renamed The Firefly for the occasion, accompanied by football star David Beckham and Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II.
Beckham had the honour of lighting the first torch at the Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose in Cornwall on Friday.
In contrast to the shoestring operation when Britain last hosted the Olympics in 1948, this year’s relay is a big-budget affair, with parties and public events at each of its stops.