Olympia - The Olympic flame was lit in Ancient Olympia in Greece on Sunday and began its long journey towards the opening ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games which begin on February 7.
Actors in ancient Greek costume in the bright midday sunshine invoked the god Apollo in the ruins of the 2 600-year-old Temple of Hera, using a parabolic mirror to harness the sun's rays and kindle a flame on the torch for a relay that will take it around Greece and hosts Russia as well as for the first time in space.
Dignitaries at the ceremony included the new president of the International Olympic Committee Thomas Bach, as well as the head of the Sochi organising committee, Dmitry Chernyshenko.
"The Olympic flame should be an inspiration for millions of people throughout the world," Bach, who was making his first overseas trip on Olympic duty, told the thousands of spectators.
"The Olympic relay represents the values of friendship without any form of discrimination," he added.
Chernyshenko said "Russians are very proud to accept the most important symbol of the Olympic movement. This is great honour for us."
After thanks to the god Apollo, "king of the sun and the idea of light", in the shadow of the Greek, Russian and Olympic flags, the flame was handed by high priestess Ino Menegaki to the first relay runner, Greece's 18-year-old Alpine skier Ioannis Antoniou.
He then passed it to 28-year-old Russian ice hockey superstar and Sochi 2014 Ambassador Alex Ovenchkin who had said that "this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and something I will never forget."
"I think you all felt awe at this sacred place and realized the power of the flame which is the symbol connecting the ancient Olympic Games with the modern Games," said Hellenic Olympic Committee president Spyros Capralos.
The ceremony marked the start of a week-long torch relay, which will take it to 20 Greek towns before it arrives on October 5 at the old Olympic stadium in Athens, site of the first modern Games in 1896.
A Russian delegation will receive the flame at a night-time ceremony where one potential torch-carrier could be Ovechkin's mother Tatyana, winner of gold medals in basketball at both Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980, the only other occasion the Olympics have been staged in Russia.
It will be carried through all 83 Russian regions and visit 2 900 towns and settlements before arriving in Sochi for the opening ceremony on February 7 ending a 65 000km journey.
The torch relay will make history when it is taken into space for the first time later this year.
It is due to travel to the International Space Station where it will then be taken on a spacewalk.
According to the Sochi organisers, the torch is due to arrive at the station on the Soyuz TMA-11M manned spaceship in November, and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov have been tasked with the historical assignment.
For safety reasons, the torch will not be lit during the spacewalk, the organisers said.
Following the mission, cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhim, who is currently based in the station, will deliver the special cargo safely back to earth.