ATHENS — The flame of the Olympics is considered a sacred trust, handed over every two years from the home of the ancient Games to the host of a modern one.
So when the Greeks passed along the flame for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games to Canadians on Thursday night it was with pride, but also with a hint of embarrassment.
Among the hands that carried the iconic Olympic emblem along its eight-day relay through coastal villages and mountain towns was an athlete who’d been kicked out of the Olympics for doping.
It may be the first of many blips on the relay for the 2010 Winter Games, expected to be met by protests when it arrives in Victoria on Friday to begin the 106-day Canadian relay.
In Athens on Thursday, it provoked anger and a rare rebuke from the International Olympic Committee.
But for Vancouver officials, looking back was not as important as looking forward.
The transfer of the flame into their hands took only an instant, yet it was a moment they have been waiting for for years.
“Just to know we’re actually doing it, it’s actually happening, all these years ago we were talking about this and I don’t think any of us had any idea what (it) would feel like,” John Furlong, chief executive officer of the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, said after the ceremony.
“It’s a very big night.”
The flame was carried for the last time in Greece by Greek-Canadian figure skater Nikki Georgiadis.
She lit a cauldron in the centre of the stadium using a 2010 torch, itself lit from the flame ignited from the rays of the sun in a similarly elaborate ceremony last week in Olympia.
For Georgiadis, herself an aspiring Olympian, the chance to hold the flame was a “dream come true.”
“It was something I can’t really explain, I was so happy and honoured,” she said.
“That’s exactly the feeling inside, just overwhelming.”Once it was in the cauldron, the Greeks bade the flame farewell.
“My friends, Canadians, we’re giving you the Olympic light to take it to your beautiful country,” said Spyros Capralos, the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee.
“We place it in your hands as part of our history, as part of our culture, as part of our lives.
“We’re sure that the Hellenic Olympic Committee, the athletes and Greeks are happy to tell you: Good luck in 2010 in Vancouver.”
Capralos clasped a lit 2010 torch, taken from the hands of a woman playing the role of an ancient priestess in a flowing white robe.
With a handshake and beaming smile he passed it to Furlong, who thrust it high into a breezy Athens night.
It was then gently dipped into a small miner’s lantern to be carried onto the plane bearing it to Victoria, always under the watchful eyes of a pair of flame attendants.
They are there to make sure the flame does not go out, even if its spirit was doused a little earlier in the day over the controversy around Fani Halkia, who ran with the torch in Athens.
She won a gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles at the 2004 Athens Olympics but she was expelled from the 2008 Beijing Games after testing positive for the steroid methyltrienolone. She received a two-year suspension from her sport.
The Intenational Olympic Committee issued a statement Thursday criticizing the decision to allow her to carry the torch, saying it was “inappropriate and a regrettable mistake.”
Halkia denies any wrongdoing, and said that tampered diet supplements may have triggered the positive doping test.
IOC spokeswoman Emmanuelle Moreau said the torch relay guidelines clearly state that torchbearer selection should respect the Olympic Charter.
“People who have had their Olympic Games accreditation removed and/or who have been found guilty of doping offences should not be permitted to run as a torchbearer,” Moreau said in an email.
Moreau said the IOC plans to discuss the matter with the Hellenic Olympic Committee, which was responsible for choosing torchbearers for the Greek relay.
Canada’s sport minister, Gary Lunn, also expressed his displeasure.
He said Canada is a leader in the anti-doping movement and takes the issue seriously.
“We would not knowingly put somebody of that stature on the torch relay,” he said in Athens.
The HOC issued a statement saying the choice of Halkia was made by the Olympic Medalists Association, and it was one the HOC doesn’t support.
“It is the HOC’s steady position that all athletes under penalty should not have the right to participate in any kind of activity and event,” said the statement from the head of the torch relay commission Spyros Zannias.
The five Olympic rings at the Athens stadium, built for the first modern-day Games in 1896, loom over the shining marble bleachers complete with built-in thrones for the dignitaries that used to watch Olympic events.
On Thursday night, those seats were filled with the president of the Greek Republic and Canadian Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean.
She was one of the first to hold the flame in its lantern.
“The feeling is as if I were carrying important values,” she said “Values of peace, solidarity, fraternity, peace that we need to build every day, one gesture, one word at a time.”
It was a bittersweet night for Vancouver officials.
Only hours after the flame was lit in ancient Olympia on Oct. 22, the chairman of the board of directors for the Games, Jack Poole, passed away.
Among the few major announcements he’d been involved in with these Games was the launch of the torch relay route last fall and while it was known he was ill, all had hoped he’d live to see the start of the epic event.
The relay runs for 106 days and will cover 45,000 kilometres by plane, boat, bike, dogsled, skateboard and many other modes of transportation.
The final leg of the journey is in Vancouver, where the flame will be run into BC Place Stadium to light a cauldron there and signal the start of the Vancouver Games on Feb. 12.