Olympic flame lit in Greece ahead of torch relay across Britain before the 2012 London Games

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The countdown to the London 2012 Olympics has begun after the Olympic Flame was lit today in Greece.

Actress Ino Menegaki, dressed in robes, played the role of high priestess in front of the ruins of the Temple of Hera in ancient Olympia at the traditional lighting ceremony.

Lifting a blazing torch from a parabolic mirror, the flame was lit as if beamed by the sun's rays from the Greek god of the sun, Apollo. According to tradition, this method guarantees the purity of the flame and is the only way the Olympic flame can be lit.

The symbolic ceremony at the birthplace of the Ancient Games was conducted as the Olympic Anthem was played and the Olympic Flag was hoisted. With the Olympics being held in London, God Save The Queen was also played as the Union Flag was raised. An extract of the poem The Light Of Olympia was also recited.

Click here for more images from today's ceremony

It marks the beginning of the torch relay which will culminate in the lighting of the cauldron at the Olympic Stadium in Stratford at the opening ceremony on Friday June 27. Five-time gold medallist, rower Steve Redgrave, is the favourite to light the cauldron at the Danny Boyle choreographed event.

Before then, the torch will go on a relay around Greece for seven days. The first torchbearer was, Spyros Gianniotis, a Liverpool-born Greek swimmer who won the gold medal in the 10km open water event at the 2011 World Championships and will be appearing at his fourth consecutive Olympics this summer. The second torchbearer was 19-year-old Alexander Loukos, a Briton of Greek origin who was a part of London's successful bid to host the Games. The torch will be handed over to London organisers on May 17 and flown to Britain a day later.

In attendance at today's ceremony were International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge and London 2012 chairman Lord Coe.

"With this ceremony we begin the final countdown to a dream that came to life seven years ago in Singapore, when London was selected to host the 2012 Games," said Rogge.

Coe, who competed at the Los Angeles and Moscow Games, spoke in uplifting terms at the sun drenched ceremony.

"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," said the former Olympic champion.

As well as tradition, there was tight security at today's event. That is something that is sure to continue when the flame goes on its 70-day relay around Britain.

Organisers today revealed multi-time Olympic gold medal winner Ben Ainslie would be the first torchbearer when the relay begins at Land's End. In total 8,000 people will carry the flame on its 12,800 km journey around the country on a route that will pass within an hour of 95 per cent of the population.

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