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Thursday, June 8, 2000
Olympic flame lands Down Under

 ULURU, Australia (AP) -- Nova Peris-Kneebone began the symbolic countdown to the Sydney 2000 Olympics with a barefooted run in the shadows of Uluru in Australia's center.

 The first indigenous Australian to win an Olympic gold medal, became the first torchbearer Down Under of the Olympic flame, sparking off a relay which culminates with the lighting of the cauldron Sept. 15 at Stadium Australia.

 The first of 100 days of the relay concluded later Thursday when Zac Thompson ignited a cauldron in Alice Springs with the Olympic flame. Earlier, the torch relay was halted just outside town as organizers formally asked aboriginal elders for the right to cross their land.

 More than 15,000 people crammed onto a football field in "The Alice" for the first of hundreds of local ceremonies to welcome the torch along a route that will take the relay within a one-hour drive of 80 percent of Australia's population.

 But the significance of the relay for the people of Australia had been highlighted about an hour after the sun rose over Uluru.

 Discarding her shoes in a sign of respect to the traditional owners of Uluru and their customs, Peris-Kneebone held the Olympic torch high over the rich red soil, shrugging off a couple of failed attempts to ignite it.

 The torch finally alight, she started to run toward the giant glowing rock, which she described as the heart and the "belly of Australia."

 Almost seven years after Sydney was declared as the winning bidder for the 2000 Olympics, the Olympic flame was welcomed to Australia by members of the Uluru family, who're among the traditional owners of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

 Kunmanara Uluru accepted the torch from Australia's governor-general, Sir William Deane, then handed it to eight other members of his family before it was passed onto Peris-Kneebone.

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

 After a stuttering start to formalities, a strong breeze whipping over the arid landscape snuffed out the flame as Deane attempted to ignite it and 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 May 10 at ancient Olympia - the birthplace of the Olympics - in Greece, had traveled through 12 Oceanic nations and had last touched down in New Zealand en route to Australia.

 The Ansett Airlines charter flight carrying the flame landed at Connellan Airport, at the nearby Ayers Rock resort, at 8.41 a.m. local time (2241 GMT Wednesday.)

 Followed by a convoy of support vehicles and joined by Jessica, her nine-year-old daughter, Peris-Kneebone ran the first leg, of about 1 mile to Uluru.

 She handed the torch onto the local Anangu, the indigenous people of the region, who completed a 5.9-mile lap around the base of Uluru before the relay returned to the nearby town. Due to the vast distances between towns in Outback Australia, the flame was later flown to Alice Springs.

 The torch heads east to Queensland Friday, arriving in the mining town of Mount Isa before continuing its journey to the coast.

 Peris-Kneebone won gold at the Atlanta Olympics as a member of the Australian women's field hockey team before switching to track and becoming a world-ranked sprinter. She was voted Young Australian of the Year in 1997.

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

 Two-time Wimbledon tennis champion Evonne Goolagong Cawley was among other aboriginal torchbearers.

 More than 11,000 Australians will carry the torch on its 16,740 mile journey to the Games' opening ceremony.

 En route, the torch will be submerged with a scuba diver on the Great Barrier Reef, off the Queensland coast and, in remote Western Australia, it will be carried on camel back.

 Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, stands 1,142 feet high and is estimated to be about 70 million years old.

 It figures heavily in the Dreamtime, an intricate belief system which intertwines spirituality and traditional law for the original inhabitants.

 Uluru was returned to Aboriginal ownership when the Federal Government made a "hand back" in 1976.

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