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Wednesday, June 7, 2000
Olympic flame lands Down Under

 ULURU, Australia (AP) -- Barefoot and smiling, Nova Peris-Kneebone held the Olympic torch high over the rich red soil of central Australia, shrugging off a couple of failed attempts to ignite it.

 When the symbol of the Olympics was lit, she started to run toward Uluru -- the giant glowing rock in the background -- to commence the final countdown to the 2000 Sydney Games.

 Peris-Kneebone, the first Australian Aborigine to win an Olympic gold medal, today became the first torchbearer of a 16,740-mile, 100-day relay to Stadium Australia for the Sept. 15 opening ceremony.

 Almost seven years after Sydney became the winning bidder for the 2000 Olympics, the Olympic flame was welcomed by members of the Uluru family, among the traditional owners of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

 Kunmanara Uluru accepted the torch from Australia's Governor-General, Sir William Deane, and passed it to eight other members of his family before it was handed to Peris-Kneebone, who ran without shoes as a sign of respect for the traditional owners.

 "We are all very happy the firestick has come to my father's place and we welcome you to our country," Kunmanara Uluru said.

 After a stuttering start to the ceremony, a strong breeze whipping over the flat, arid landscape snuffed out the flame as Deane was attempting to ignite it. It happened again when Peris-Kneebone took possession. The torch was lit by a backup flame carried from Greece.

 Michael Knight, the Olympics minister and president of Sydney's Olympic organizing committee, breathed a sigh of relief.

 "Finally," he said. "The flame is in Australia, now we're totally responsible" for the Olympics.

 The flame, initially ignited in a traditional ceremony at ancient Olympia, Greece, on May 10, traveled through 12 Oceanic nations and last touched down in New Zealand en route to Australia.

 After the flame arrived at an airport, Peris-Kneebone, followed by a convoy of support vehicles and joined by Jessica, her 9-year-old daughter, ran the first leg of about 1 mile to Uluru.

 She handed the torch to the local Anangu, the indigenous people of the region, who completed a 5.9-mile lap around the base of Uluru before the relay continued north to Alice Springs.

 Among the other aboriginal torchbearers will be two-time Wimbledon champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

 More than 11,000 Australians will carry the torch along a route that takes it within a one-hour drive of about 80 percent of the population.

 En route to the opening ceremony, the torch will be submerged with a scuba diver for about three minutes on the Great Barrier Reef, off the Queensland coast in eastern Australia.

 On the opposite side of the country, in remote Western Australia, the torch will be carried on camelback.

 Peris-Kneebone won gold in Atlanta as a member of the Australian women's field hockey team before switching to track and field and becoming a world-ranked sprinter.

 "You get so many opportunities in sport, but this is a once in a lifetime," she said.

 She said it was of huge significance for black and white Australians that the torch landed "in the belly of the country."

 Uluru "is the heart of Australia, it's extremely important in terms of aboriginal Australia ... for all Australians."

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