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Saturday, May 20, 2000
Olympic flame heads for Oceania

 ATHENS (AP) -- Torch relay runners headed for Athens today to deliver the Olympic flame to Sydney Games officials, as organizers tried to put scandal and a shaky start behind them.

 The flame will be handed over at the marble Pan Athenian stadium, venue of the first modern Olympiad in 1896, before being flown to Guam to embark on a giant island-hopping tour of Oceania for the Sept. 15 to Oct. 1 Games.

 Senior Australian Olympic officials skipped today's event amid continued embarrassment over the flame lighting ceremony at ancient Olympia in southern Greece 10 days ago.

 IOC vice-president, Kevan Gosper of Australia, was forced to apologize after facing intense criticism for allowing his daughter to replace another girl as the first Australian torchbearer.

 Government officials were furious over a string of mishaps that included difficulty lighting the flame after a lengthy ceremony, and a brass band that played out of tune.

 "The ceremony was, to say the least, unacceptable," Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos, said Thursday. "How can we be expected to organize Olympic Games if we can't get the ceremony right."

 Athens will host the 2004 Olympic games, and organizers are under pressure from the IOC to overcome serious delays.

 Before reaching Athens, the flame was carried using Sydney's boomerang-shaped aluminium torches around Greece, to 43 towns and eight islands.

 A Greek Navy frigate brought the flame Saturday to the port of Rafina, 15 miles east of Athens.

 Runners and their escorts were showered with confetti by cheering crowds, and traditional dance troupes performed at the side of the road, as the rally set out on the final stage to the capital. Foreign Minister George Papandreou is due to participate in the rally.

 "This flame carries a message of freedom, dignity, peace and cooperation among all peoples and all nations," Culture Minister Theodoros Pangalos, in charge of sporting events, said during a brief ceremony at Rafina. "We will never let (the flame) go out."

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