Olympic flame ceremony marks countdown to London Games

The "high priestess" lights the Olympic flame. Credit: ITV News

The countdown to the London 2012 Games began in earnest today with the lighting of the Olympic Flame in the ancient Greek city of Olympia.

The traditional ceremony took place under baking sun and tight security in front of the ruins of the Temple of Hera, the birthplace of the Ancient Games.

The ceremony started with the raising of the Olympic flag, the Union flag and the Greek flag. God Save The Queen was played as the Union Flag was raised.

Spyros Zannias, chairman of the Olympic Torch Relay Commission, International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, Hellenic Olympic Committee president Spyros Capralos, and London 2012 chairman Lord Coe said a few words before the lighting began.

British International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Sir Craig Reedie, Olympics minister Hugh Robertson plus Dr David Landsman, the British ambassador to the Hellenic Republic also attended.

During the ceremony, Lord Coe presented a framed London 2012 poster - titled For The Unknown Runner by artist Chris Ofili - to the Hellenic Olympic Committee. The Greek Olympic committee, London 2012 and the IOC exchanged little urns as gifts.

Lord Coe said the flame would lift the spirits of people across Britain and the world. Addressing the crowd he said:

We promise to protect the flame; to cherish its traditions and to stage an uplifting Torch Relay of which we can all be proud and which can inspire a generation. As torchbearers lift the Olympic Flame in the days and months ahead, it is our hope that they will also lift the spirits and hopes of people across Britain and across world.

In a highly theatrical performance featuring dancing men and women wearing toga-like robes, a "high priestess" lifted a blazing torch from a parabolic mirror, and lit the flame.

The flame was lit directly from the rays of the sun, through a parabolic mirror Credit: ITV News

The flame is lit in such a way to guarantee it is "pure" and lit directly from the sun, as stated by ancient rituals.

The flame will now travel around Greece for eight days before arriving in the UK on May 18. The Games will begin on July 27.