Torchbearers in Marseille kick off the Olympic flame's journey across the country

MARSEILLE, France — Torchbearers are carrying the Olympic flame Thursday through the streets of France’s southern port city of Marseille, a day after it arrived on a majestic three-mast ship for the welcoming ceremony.

The torch begins its 11-week journey across the country with about 10,000 bearers passing through more than 450 towns until the Games’ opening ceremony in Paris on July 26.

Former soccer player Basile Boli, who played with the Marseille team in the 1990s, kicked off Thursday’s relay from the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica that overlooks Marseille and the Mediterranean.

“I’m very proud,” Boli said. “You feel like you’re on top of the world, because with an Olympic flame there’s a special fervor…. It’s the symbol of sport!”

Basketball player Tony Parker will take his turn in the relay later Thursday. A fencing champion, a skateboarder, a Michelin-starred chef and a comedian were also chosen to carry the flame.

”Let’s go for a fantastic celebration,” said Tony Estanguet, president of the Paris Olympics’ organizing committee. “The games are back in our country… Let’s share this fantastic moment of celebration with millions of people in the country.”

Participants were scheduled to run all day through landmarks of the city to bring the torch on the roof of the famed Stade Velodrome, home to Marseille’s passionate soccer fans.

Sports Ministry Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said “it’s fantastic to give that sense of pride to the French people and to show to the whole world what we’re capable to achieve.”

“’We’re going to give happiness to the whole world,” she added.

One of the torchbearers is Ukrainian gymnast Mariia Vysochanska, who won two gold medals at the 2020 European Championships and competed at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

It’s an expression of solidarity with Ukraine as well as a symbolic gesture to mark Europe Day, which falls on May 9 each year. Vysochanska will lead a group of 27 other athletes who represent all European Union member states.

“It’s a way to really celebrate Europe, its values and also to demonstrate our attachment to the European sport model,” Oudéa-Castéra said. Ukraine got a green light last year to start sped-up talks on joining the EU.

“(Ukrainians) face that terrible war of aggression, and we want to really express that we support them the best we can,” she added. “This is unity. This is hope. This is solidarity. And we want their victory.”

Marseille on Wednesday celebrated with great fanfare the flame’s arrival, with more than 230,000 people attending the ceremony in the Old Port, according to the city’s mayor, Benoît Payan.

“It’s just incredible, just magical,” resident Amel Sekko said. “We needed it. We never have events or beautiful things like this in Marseille.”

Mouna Boulhas, another Marseille resident, said: “It’s something you have to experience at least once in your life.”

During the Games, the sailing competition and some soccer matches will be held in Marseille.


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