22 Apr 2016

The countdown begins

7:10 am on 22 April 2016

The official countdown to this year's Rio de Janeiro Olympics began with the lighting of the torch at the site of the ancient Games and organisers hoping to shift attention away from Brazil's political and financial turmoil.

The Olympic torch.

The Olympic torch. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

On a glorious spring day with the sun burning hot above the ancient stadium in Olympia, an actress playing a high priestess lit the torch from the rays of the sun at the temple of Hera, using a parabolic mirror.

Greek gymnastics world champion Lefteris Petrounias started the domestic relay after receiving the flame, handing the torch over to Brazilian double Olympic volleyball champion Giovane Gavio.

A refugee will also carry the torch during the Greek leg of the relay in a symbolic move to highlight the plight of refugees before Brazilian organisers receive it in a handover at the Panathenian stadium on April 27 in Athens, site of the first modern Olympics in 1896.

Brazil will start its relay on May 3 in the capital Brasilia with the first of 12,000 runners, carrying it through 300 cities and towns in the 26 Brazilian states and ending in Rio on the day of the opening ceremony on Aug. 5.

Preparations, however, for the first Games in South America, have been plagued by problems and a shortage of cash for organisers as the country is experiencing its worst recession in decades.

"(The torch lighting) brings a message that can and will unite our dear Brazil," Rio Games chief Carlos Nuzman said in his speech.

Brazil President Dilma Rousseff, who cancelled her trip to ancient Olympia, is facing impeachment and federal prosecutors are investigating Olympic projects for corruption.

Asked if organisers were concerned about a possible change of government, Nuzman told Reuters: I'm not a politician and I don't know. We know what we need to do, and we'll do (it)."