Olympic torch begins journey across France after festive welcome in port city of Marseille

The Belem, the three-masted sailing ship which is carrying the Olympic flame, is accompanied by other boats approaching Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. After leaving Marseille, a vast relay route is undertaken before the torch odyssey ends on July 27 in Paris. The Paris 2024 Olympic Games will run from July 26 to Aug.11, 2024.
The Belem, the three-masted sailing ship which is carrying the Olympic flame, is accompanied by other boats approaching Marseille, southern France, Wednesday, May 8, 2024. After leaving Marseille, a vast relay route is undertaken before the torch odyssey ends on July 27 in Paris. The Paris 2024 Olympic Games will run from July 26 to Aug.11, 2024. AP Photo

MARSEILLE, France — Tens of thousands of people welcomed the Olympic torch Wednesday in the southern French city of Marseille, marking another milestone in the lead-up to the Summer Games in Paris.

French Olympic swimmer Florent Manaudou became the first torch carrier in France after the Olympic flame arrived in Marseille’s Old Port on a majestic three-mast ship from Greece for the welcoming ceremony amid tight security.

The ship sailed into Marseille's old port with the French national anthem “La Marseillaise” echoing from the embankment and a French Air force flyover with planes first drawing the five Olympic rings and then the red-blue-white colors of the nation's flag.

The ship docked on a pontoon resembling an athletics track and Manaudou carried the torch to mainland France. He handed it to French Paralympic sprinter Nantenin Keïta, who won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, to carry it to rapper Jul, a Marseille native, who lit a cauldron as tens of thousands cheered on the shore and thousands of others waved from balconies and windows.

“We can be proud,” said President Emmanuel Macron, who attended the ceremony to welcome the torch.

“The flame is on French soil,” Macron said. “The games are coming to France and are entering the lives of the French people."

Marseille’s Mayor Benoît Payan said that more than 230,000 people attended Wednesday's ceremony.

“Tonight, the people of Marseille won the first gold medal of these Olympic Games,” Payan said, beaming with pride.

The torch was lit in Greece last month before it was officially handed to France. It left Athens aboard a ship named Belem, which was first used in 1896, and spent twelve days at sea.

Paris 2024 Olympics Organizing Committee President Tony Estanguet said the return of the Olympic Games to France was cause for a “fantastic celebration.”

“As a former athlete, I know how important the start of a competition is. That is why we chose Marseille, because it's definitely one of the cities most in love with sports,” added Estanguet, a former Olympic canoeing star with gold medals from the 2000, 2004 and 2012 Games.

Safety of visitors and residents has been a top priority for authorities in Marseille, France's second largest city with nearly a million inhabitants. About 8,000 police officers have been deployed around the harbor.

Thousands of firefighters and bomb disposal squads have been positioned around the city along with maritime police and anti-drone teams patrolling the city's waters and its airspace.

“It's a monumental day and we have been working hard for visitors and residents of Marseille to enjoy this historical moment,” said Yannick Ohanessian, the city's deputy mayor.

The torch relay will start on Thursday in Marseille, before heading to Paris through iconic places across the country, from the world-famous Mont Saint-Michel to D-Day landing beaches in Normandy and the Versailles Palace.

Heavy police and military presence was seen patrolling Marseille's city center Tuesday, as a military helicopter flew over the Old Port, where a range of barriers have been set up.

French Interior Ministry spokesperson Camille Chaize said officials were prepared for security threats including terrorism.

“We're employing various measures, notably the elite National Gendarmerie Intervention Group unit, which will be present in the torch relay from beginning to end,” she said.

The Olympic cauldron will be lit after the Games’ opening ceremony that will take place on the River Seine on July 26.

The cauldron will be lit at a location in Paris that is being kept top-secret until the day itself. Among reported options are such iconic spots as the Eiffel Tower and the Tuileries Gardens outside the Louvre Museum. (AP)

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