Olympic torch relay in Marseille offers ‘solidarity’ with Ukraine

Published May 10, 2024
UKRAINIAN gymnast Mariya Vysochanska holds the Olympic torch in front of the Mucem Museum on Thursday.—AFP
UKRAINIAN gymnast Mariya Vysochanska holds the Olympic torch in front of the Mucem Museum on Thursday.—AFP

MARSEILLLE: The Olym­pic torch relay began in Marseille on Thursday with the port city’s football legend Basile Boli taking the flame in front of the iconic basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde before passing it on to a number of other celebrity sports stars including Ukrainian gymnast Mariia Vysochanska.

France’s former NBA great Tony Parker was also among the 200 people who will carry the torch in Marseille along with skier Cyprien Sarrazin who collected the flame from Vysochanska.

The 21-year-old from Lviv, whose father is fighting at the front against the Russian invasion, was ‘captain’ for the day of a collective relay of 28 athletes, with one representative from each of the 27 countries of the European Union including Poland’s three-time reigning Olympic hammer champion Anita Wlodarczyk.

The relay “is a way of emphasising our solidarity with Ukraine… at a time when they are suffering a terrible war of aggression,” said French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera.

“This is a sign of unity, hope and solidarity, we want them to win”.

Former French international Boli, who scored the only goal in Olympique de Marseille’s victory over AC Milan in the 1993 European Champion Clubs’ Cup final, set off at 8:20am (0620 GMT) just beneath the famous golden statue of the “Good Mother”, which watches over France’s second-largest city.

“It makes the heart beat and it’s fantastic,” said Boli. “It’s the Olympic flame, it’s the symbol of sport, of living together, of everything we can hope for in the world.”

There is a strong football element to the first of 78 days of the torch relay with 1991 Ballon d’Or winner Jean-Pierre Papin and Ivory Coast great Didier Drogba also among the torch bearers.

The torch will also visit the Stade Velodrome, home of Olympique Marseille, which will host 10 matches during the men’s and women’s Olympic football competitions.

“The start is important in sport,” said chief organiser Tony Estanguet after the beginning of the relay. “We got off to a good start… now it’s on.”

These are only the first steps on 12,000-kilometre (7,500-mile) relay across France and its far-flung overseas territories before the opening ceremony in Paris on July 26.

The flame arrived on French soil at Marseille on Wednesday on board the 19th-century sailing ship Belem in front of 150,000 spectators for a ceremony that posed a first major security test for organisers of the 2024 Paris Games.

As the ship entered Mar­seille’s Old Port with hundreds of small boats trailing behind, planes from the Patrouille de France display team traced the Olympic rings in the sky and then the red, white and blue of the French flag.

Fireworks were fired as the Belem docked after its 12-day voyage from Greece, where the flame was lit in ancient Olympia on April 16.

Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Florent Manaudou carried the torch from the ship and passed it to Paralympic champion sprinter Nantenin Keita, who handed it to French rapper Jul to light a cauldron.

Organisers are hoping the first public spectacle of the Games on French soil will help build excitement after a row about the price of Olympics tickets and concerns about security.

President Emmanuel Mac­ron praised the “unprecedented effort” of the security forces in Marseille. And after watching the flame arrive, he said he hoped the Olympics would bring France together.

“I want our compatriots to imagine that this is a moment of unity and that we are capable of it and that we can be proud of it,” he said.

In the background in Marseille, around 6,000 security forces are on duty at a time when the country is on its highest terror alert.

Extremely tight security will be a constant feature as the torch travels through more than 450 French towns and cities, and passes by dozens of tourist attractions including Mont Saint Michel. It will also visit France’s overseas territories including Guadeloupe, New Caledonia and Reunion.

Around 200 members of the security forces are set to be positioned permanently aro­und the torch, including an anti-terror SWAT team and an anti-drone operatives.

Interior minister Gerald Darmanin has referred to the risk of protests, including from far-left groups or environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion.

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2024

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