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UPDATED: March 25, 2008  
World Athletes Hail Torch Relay as Flame Lit up
World athletes hailed the torch relay of the Beijing Olympic Games as the flame was lit up in Ancient Olympia and started its international tour on Monday

World athletes hailed the torch relay of the Beijing Olympic Games as the flame was lit up in Ancient Olympia and started its international tour on Monday.

The Beijing Olympics flame was lit in an official ceremony at the birthplace of the ancient Olympics.

Athens Olympic champion swimmer Luo Xuejuan (R) runs during the torch relay of the Beijing Olympic Games in Olympia of Greece on March 24, 2008. (Xinhua)

The ceremony launches the Olympic torch relay that marks the countdown for each Games, and the Beijing Games relay is the longest and most ambitious ever planned, lasting 130 days and covering 137,000 kilometers (85,000 miles) worldwide.

Kosuke Kitajima, Japan's double Olympic breaststroke champion and former world record holder, said he will feel delighted to take part in the torch relay although he has working hard currently in the United States to retain his titles at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

"I never expect to become a torch bearer for the upcoming Olympics, but it is meaningful to inform the arrival of the Olympic flame to the people of the world and increase the awareness for the Olympic movement. I feel so excited to get involved in the torch relay," said Kitajima, who is expected to run in Nagano of Japan segment.

"Now I am competing on a plateau of the USA, and training for 10,00 meters per day," added Kitajima. "I am in 100 percent good form and I can train like eating my breakfast."

At the Athens Olympics in 2004, Kitajima won the 100 and 200 meters golds. In April, he will come back to Japan for the national championships which also serve as qualifiers for the Olympics.

Luo Xuejuan, formerly dubbed the "Queen in the Pool" before her retirement from swimming last year, felt extremely proud of being the first Chinese to bear the flame of Beijing Olympic Games.

"I'm so honored, and feel so challenged also," said Luo, who won the only swimming title for China in Athens four years ago at the women's 100 meters breaststroke event.

"As the first Chinese torchbearer, I deeply know that I'm not bearing it by myself but with all my countrymen," Luo added.

The 24-year-old former Olympian took over the torch from Greek Olympic taekwondo silver medallist Alexandros Nikolaidis, the first torchbearer, after his torch was lit by High Priestess Maria Nafpliotou at the Ancient Olympia archaeological site.

Table tennis legend Deng Yaping, who has run twice in previous Olympics, will also run the torch relay in Greece on behalf of China.

"The torch relay lasts a long time and will get many people involved, so it will have an enormous effect on the world," said Deng, who ran her first torch relay in 2000 Sydney Games.

"Those who don't know much about the Olympics will use the torch relay as an access to it. The torch relay is really a good symbol for the Olympic movement."

Deng, with 18 world and Olympic titles to her belt, is one of the most successful table tennis players in China. After retirement, she became an official of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Deng noted that the different peoples from different countries can understand each other and enhance the friendship via the torch relay, which is aimed at the world peace.

"The Olympic Games are an arena for top-level athletes, so the torch relay presents a good chance for average people to get involved. In my previous torch relay experiences, I can really feel the charm of the noble movement and the enthusiasm of the torch bearers and the watchers."

The Beijing Olympics, the first to be held in China, will open on August 8 and run until August 24.

(Xinhua News Agency March 24, 2008)

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