LONDON — The Olympic flame began a 70-day journey Saturday that will end on July 27 when a final torchbearer lights a caldron at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games.
For many Britons, the torch relay is the beginning of the countdown to the Summer Games, arguably the world’s greatest sporting spectacle.
Lit by the sun’s rays in ancient Olympia, in Greece, just over a week ago, the Olympic flame will pass through more than 1,000 cities, towns, villages and landmarks ranging from Stonehenge to Loch Ness.
Starting at Land’s End, a cliff-top site at the tip of southwestern England, sailor Ben Ainslie kicked off the relay that will see 8,000 torchbearers carry the flame along a route stretching approximately 8,000 miles.
Ainslie, a three-time Olympic gold-medal winner, walked most of his 328-yard leg, allowing some of the flag-waving local residents in the pressing lines to reach out and touch the torch.
“I think the Olympics is for everybody, so it’s great for people to be able to get up close to the torch and feel part of it,” Ainslie told the BBC. He is hoping to clinch his fourth gold medal this summer when London becomes the first city in the modern era to host the Games three times.
Unlike Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008, London has not opted for an around-the-world torch relay, which proved an embarrassment for China when the flame’s progress was hindered by protesters.
But organizers have promised that the flame will pass within 10 miles of 95 percent of the British public, with most of the torchbearers nominated by local communities. The oldest bearer, Diana Gould, was nominated for her commitment to sports and will be 100 years old when she carries the flame on July 25.
During its journey, the flame will pass through England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, transported by various modes, including horseback, bicycle and a helium-filled balloon. A minimum of three Metropolitan Police officers, dressed in low-key grey sportswear, will flank each runner along the route.
If the jubilant, swelling crowds Saturday are a sign of things to come, the torch relay could prove a key turning point in the mood of the nation, igniting enthusiasm in place of widespread apathy and grumbling over the estimated $14.7 billion cost of hosting the Games.
More than 100 people a day will carry the gold-colored torch whose design has been widely praised (in sharp contrast to the logo and mascot of the London Games). Standing just over 30 inches tall, the torch has 8,000 tiny holes — some have dubbed it the “cheese grater” — and its three sides were inspired in part by the Olympic motto “Citius, Altius, Fortius,” Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.”
Within hours of the relay’s start, one of the 8,000 torches used in the relay had popped up on eBay, with bids on Saturday afternoon exceeding $240,000 (the torchbearer threw in an extra-large uniform, as well.) A spokeswoman for the 2012 London Olympic Committee said that the torches are worth $783 — although bearers have the option to buy their torch for $340. She added she was “keen” for the torch advertised on eBay to “go to a good home.”
The Olympic flame and three backups were flown out of Athens on Friday with a British delegation that included the queen’s daughter, Princess Anne, and soccer star David Beckham. Beckham, who was in Washington with his L.A. Galaxy team earlier this week for a reception at the White House, has been one of Britain’s biggest ambassadors for the Games and was the first person on British soil on Friday to light a torch with the Olympic flame.
The captain of the British Airways flight reportedly prepared for takeoff in Athens with the announcement: “No smoking on this flight unless you happen to be an Olympic flame.”