The Sochi Flame was ignited Sunday in Greece, starting the official countdown to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
The torch relay will be the longest for any Winter Games, lasting 123 days, during which time it will pass through 2,900 settlements spread across 83 regions in Russia, a distance of more than 40,000 miles, Reuters r
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The flame was lit in a traditional ceremony that began during the 1936 Berlin Games, intended to commemorate the theft of fire from the Greek god Zeus by Prometheus. In this year's ceremony, eleven women wearing flowing white gowns representing the Vestal Virgins lit the flame before handing it off to Greek alpine skier Ioannis Antoniou, the BBC reported
Once it leaves Greece, the Olympic flame will make its way to the North Pole and the bottom of Lake Baikal, which is the deepest freshwater lake in the world. The flame will also hit Europe's highest peak at Mount Elbrus in Russia and even outer space.
It will be carried by a record 14,000 torch-bearers along the way.
When it arrives at its destination, the torch will kick-off the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 7.
"There is no greater privilege than to stand here in the spiritual home of the Olympic Movement," Sochi Games Chief Dmitry Chernyshenko said at the ceremony, the Associated Press reported
. "This is the beginning of an epic journey for the Olympic Torch, a journey that will change Russia forever."
As Russia prepares for its first ever Winter Olympics, game organizers face several hurdles in the run-up, including opposition around the world over Russia's anti-gay laws
and threats from Muslim extremists in the region who have called for attacks on the games.
Thomas Bach, a former German gold medalist turned attorney, who is now president of the International Olympic Committee
, was at the torch lighting ceremony on Sunday and addressed concerns.
"We have the assurances of the highest authorities in Russia, and yesterday I spoke with the Russian delegation here in Olympia again and they reassured us that the Olympic Charter will fully apply for all the participants of the games," he said. "We are very clear that we will not tolerate any form of discrimination. The task of the IOC is that the Olympic Charter is applied 100 percent."
The Olympic Charter, which is the Games' rules and guidelines, protects against discrimination of any kind.
"The Olympic Games ... should inspire the people of the world and especially the political authorities by showing them that quarrels and conflicts can be addressed with peaceful means," Bach said before the ceremony. "I think it will have a very positive effect on Russia. It will show a new Russia to the world and also open up civil society."
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Security issues are also a concern for Russian officials, considering the Olympic Games are being held in the volatile North Caucasus, where on Friday Russian security forces killed five suspected militants including one believed to be a local Islamist insurgent leader, Reuters reported.
In June, Russian Islamist Doku Umarov called on his allies in the region to use "maximum force" to disrupt the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi
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