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Officials hope flame’s London arrival lifts mood

July 21, 2012

LONDON, July 21: The Olympic torch relay began its final stretch in London’s historic district of Greenwich on Saturday, a journey officials hope will help dispel a cloud of gloom and cynicism hanging over the Games.

Officials were all smiles in Greenwich as a young torch-bearer jogged through the maritime district’s Royal Park past the grand colonnades of the old naval college. But many Britons fear the games will be a costly, rain-soaked logistical fiasco.

But to everyone’s relief, the weather started co-operating on Saturday.

After weeks of unseasonably chilly temperatures and miserable rain, the sun came as thousands of people turned out to watch the flame begin its seven-day trip of the Olympic host city.

The torch arrived late Friday in the city with a dramatic entrance, abseiled from a helicopter by a Royal Marine to the Tower of London on the shore of the River Thames.

After a night locked inside the Jewel House of the 11th century landmark, the torch started a journey through London that took it from a historic ship to a shiny new shopping mall.

Olympics legend Nadia Comaneci carried the torch on the roof of the North Greenwich Arena as the flame began a seven-day tour of London that will culminate at the Games opening ceremony.

The perfect 10-scoring Romanian gymnast, who won five gold medals over the 1976 and 1980 Olympics, passed the flame on to British ex-NBA basketball star John Amaechi atop the former Millennium Dome, which will host the artistic and trampoline gymnastics as well as the basketball finals.

“I’m very happy and honoured to be part of the torch relay,” the 50-year-old Comaneci told BBC television on top of the 20,000-seater indoor arena. “Everybody’s very excited, just six days to the opening ceremony.”

Thousands of spectators were in the streets to witness the relay.

“As it sprints through the city, I know that its radiance will dispel any last remaining clouds of dampness and anxiety ... and it will spread the crackling bush fire of Olympic enthusiasm throughout the city,” London Mayor Boris Johnson told reporters, referring to the torch.

Inside the Olympic Park, competitors were getting used to their new surroundings, while the Australian women’s hockey team were out on the practice pitch.

In Britain, pressure is mounting to beat or at least maintain the fourth place its athletes achieved on the medal table at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“This will be the most competitive Olympic Games in history and we don’t take for granted for one moment that this will be easy,” Andy Hunt, chief executive of the British Olympic Association and chef de mission of Team GB, told reporters.

Last week’s headlines were dominated by Britain having to send an extra 3,500 troops to the Games — taking the full deployment to 17,000 — after private security firm G4S admitted they could provide the full contingent of guards.

London Games organisers said they would be allocating extra tickets to the service personnel, some of whom should have been on leave after returning from Afghanistan.

“We are hugely grateful to the troops for their support, and they are doing a great job,” a spokesman said.—Agencies