Singed Olympia to be ready for Beijing torch ceremony

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ATHENS, Oct 25 (Reuters) The countryside around Ancient Olympia that was extensively damaged by forest fires will be restored in time for next year's Beijing Games torch-lighting ceremony, Greece's culture minister said today.

Summer fires damaged hundreds of thousands of acres of forest land in the southern Peloponnese peninsula, killing dozens of people and sweeping into the lush Alfios river valley where Olympia, site of the ancient Olympic Games, is located.

Trees and bushes were burnt inside the archaeological site just metres from the ancient stadium and Temple of Hera.

The blaze also damaged a Cypress-ringed clearing inside the Olympic Academy, where the heart of the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, is buried.

Olympia hosts a torch-lighting ceremony for the modern summer and winter Games every two years. Actresses playing ancient Greek high priestesses use a parabolic mirror to reflect the sun's rays onto a small cauldron, which in turn lights the first torch of a relay ahead of the Games.

''In a short time we will hand back a fully restored ancient Olympia to the international community,'' Culture Minister Michalis Liapis said after inspecting restoration works.

''The torch-lighting ceremony on March 24 will be held in the best possible way,'' he said.

Beijing Games organisers have planned a 137,000-km (85,000-mile) torch relay route around the world, which includes a trip to the top of Mount Everest and visits to 20 cities on five continents.

''Words are superfluous, the money is there, lots of sponsors are there, political will is there, so there is no excuse for delays,'' Liapis told local authorities.

REUTERS PDS PM1955

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