LAND’S END, United Kingdom (AFP) –
The Olympic flame was greeted by thousands of cheering spectators as it began its 70-day relay journey around Britain and Ireland on Saturday ahead of the 2012 London Games.
Triple gold medal-winning yachtsman Ben Ainslie was the first torchbearer, setting off from Land’s End, England’s most southwesterly point, before a succession of runners carried the flame through Cornwall to Plymouth.
With the Atlantic Ocean glistening behind him in the early morning sunshine, Ainslie waited while the flame was flown to Land’s End by a Royal Navy search and rescue helicopter.
Lieutenant Commander Richard Full carried the flame off the helicopter in a golden lantern and took it a short distance to light the torch Ainslie was holding.
The yachtsman then set off, barely breaking into a jog as he let some of the 3,500 spectators lining the route touch the golden torch whose design has seen it nicknamed the “cheese grater”.
After travelling barely 300 metres (yards), he used his torch to light an identical one held by 18-year-old Tassy Swallow, a surfer who is hoping her sport will one day become an Olympic discipline.
Over the next 10 weeks, the flame will travel 12,875 kilometres around England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and will also visit the Republic of Ireland.
Some 8,000 people will take part in the torch relay as it heads for the Olympic Stadium in east London for the opening ceremony on July 27.
Ainslie, who just a day earlier won a sixth world title in the Finn class as he steps up his efforts to win a fourth Olympic gold, said it had been a special moment for him to start the relay in his home county.
“I would say that particular moment ranks right up there with winning a gold medal,” said Britain’s greatest Olympic yachtsman, who wore the number 001 on his white London 2012 top.
“It was pretty emotional, so much effort has gone into getting the Olympics in London and it means so much to everyone involved.”
Adventurer Ben Fogle was also among the first day’s 139 torchbearers, carrying the flame in a helium-filled balloon inside the Eden Project rainforest biome.
On its 70-day odyssey, the torch 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 the Irish capital Dublin — the only time the torch will leave the United Kingdom on the route.
No other overseas legs of the relay have been planned after those before the 2008 Beijing Games were hit by protests against China.
On the first day, specially trained police officers, who will run alongside the torch throughout its journey, tackled a man who they thought was trying to get near to one of the torchbearers.
They pushed him into a hedge and the relay continued without a pause.
The flame was lit in Ancient Olympia in Greece on May 10 and handed over to the British delegation in Athens in a rain-sodden ceremony on Thursday.
It was flown to Britain on 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.
Police said they were investigating reports of a red light being shone at the plane as it came into land, but officers said they did not think it was caused by a laser.
The oldest runner in the torch relay is a 100-year-old woman, while Olympians past and present and soldiers injured in Afghanistan will also take part.
But the organisers wanted the bulk of the torchbearers to be unsung heroes who have helped their community, individuals involved in sport and younger people.
Swallow, the teenager who took over the flame from Ainslie, said it was a memorable day but admitted she got “a bit excited and a little crazy and ran too fast”.
Each runner is allowed to keep their torch, but although organisers have said they hope they will be cherished as souvenirs, one appeared on eBay on Saturday, attracting bids in excess of £2,000.