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Olympic torch relay sets off in Marseille

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The Olympic torch relay began in Marseille on Thursday with football legend Basile Boli taking the flame in front of the iconic basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde, a day after it made a spectacular entrance by sea ahead of the Paris Games.

The former French international, who scored the only goal in Marseille’s victory over AC Milan in the 1993 European Champion Clubs’ Cup final, set off at 8:20 am (0620 GMT) just beneath the famous golden statue of the “Good Mother”, which watches over France’s second-largest city.

“It makes the heart beat and it’s fantastic,” said Boli. “It’s the Olympic flame, it’s the symbol of sport, of living together, of everything we can hope for in the world.”

There will be a strong football element to the first of 78 days of the torch relay with Ivory Coast great Didier Drogba also among the torchbearers in the southern port city on Thursday.

The torch will also visit the Stade Velodrome, home of Marseille’s team which will host 10 matches during the men’s and women’s Olympic football competitions.

It is just the start of a 12,000-kilometre (7,500-mile) torch relay across France and its far-flung overseas territories before the opening ceremony in Paris on July 26.

The flame arrived on French soil at Marseille on Wednesday on board the 19th-century sailing ship Belem in front of 150,000 spectators for a ceremony that posed a first major security test for organisers of the 2024 Paris Games.

As the ship entered Marseille’s Old Port with hundreds of small boats trailing behind, planes from the Patrouille de France display team traced the Olympic rings in the sky and then the red, white and blue of the French flag.

Fireworks were fired as the Belem docked after its 12-day voyage from Greece, where the flame was lit in ancient Olympia on April 16.

Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Florent Manaudou carried the torch from the ship and passed it to Paralympic champion sprinter Nantenin Keita, who handed it to French rapper Jul to light a cauldron.

Organisers are hoping the first public spectacle of the Games on French soil will help build excitement after a row about the price of Olympics tickets and concerns about security.

President Emmanuel Macron praised the “unprecedented effort” of the security forces in Marseille. And after watching the flame arrive, he said he hoped the Olympics would bring France together.

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“I want our compatriots to imagine that this is a moment of unity and that we are capable of it and that we can be proud of it,” he said.

After the Covid-hit edition in Tokyo in 2021 and the corruption-tainted Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, the Paris Olympics are seen as an important moment for the sporting extravaganza.

In the background in Marseille, around 6,000 security forces are on duty at a time when the country is on its highest terror alert.

Extremely tight security will be a constant feature as the torch travels through more than 450 French towns and cities, and passes by dozens of tourist attractions including Mont Saint Michel. It will also visit France’s overseas territories including Guadeloupe, New Caledonia and Reunion.

Around 200 members of the security forces are set to be positioned permanently around the torch, including an anti-terror SWAT team and an anti-drone operative.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has referred to the risk of protests, including from far-left groups or environmental activists such as Extinction Rebellion.

Organisers have promised a “spectacular” and “iconic” Olympics and Paralympics, with much of the sport set to take place in venues around the City of Light including at the Eiffel Tower and the Invalides.

The opening ceremony for the Olympics on July 26 will take place in boats on the river Seine in a radical departure from past Games which have opened in the main stadium.

However, President Macron said last month the opening ceremony could move if the security risk was too high.

All of the major infrastructure has been completed with only two new permanent sporting venues built in a bid to reduce the financial cost and carbon emissions.

The Paris Olympics will run from July 26 to August 11, followed by the Paralympics from August 28-September 8.

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