Olympics: Olympic flame arrives in crisis-hit Brazil, torch relay across country begins

President Dilma Rousseff lit the Olympic torch in Brazil's capital and pledged that political turmoil engulfing her nation would not harm the first Games to be held in South America.
The Olympic Flame arrives at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Brasilia.
The Olympic Flame arrives at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Brasilia.PHOTO: AFP

BRASÍLIA (AFP, REUTERS) - Embattled President Dilma Rousseff greeted the Olympic flame in Brazil on Tuesday, promising not to allow a raging political crisis, in which she could be suspended within days, to ruin the Rio Games.

"We are experiencing political instability. We are going through a very difficult period, truly critical in the country's history and in the history of democracy," Rousseff said in the capital Brasilia.

However, "Brazil will provide the very best reception for athletes and foreign visitors because we have created the conditions for this".

The flame, which arrived in a small lantern from the ancient Greek site of Olympia via Switzerland, was transferred to Brazil's Olympic torch featuring waves of tropical colours.

Some 12,000 torch bearers will carry the flame across South America's largest country. In Brasilia, they will include a refugee from the Syrian civil war, 12-year-old Hanan Daqqah, who arrived in Brazil with her family last year.The relay will end in Rio's Maracana stadium on Aug 5 for the opening ceremony.

Hundreds of cheering Brazilians lined the streets at the start of the relay and an Air Force aerobatics team swooped over central Brasilia in a clear blue sky to write "Rio 2016" and the five Olympic rings in their vapour trails. Then there were cheers as the first relay runner, double Olympic gold-winning women's volleyball captain Fabiana Claudino, set off.

Rousseff said the sports facilities in Rio and the security measures to protect athletes, tourists and visiting heads of state were ready.

Brazil has scrambled to prepare for its second global sports event in two years in the midst of the worst recession since the 1930s and a massive corruption scandal that shook the political establishment and fuelled demands for Ms Rousseff's removal. Brazil is also fighting an outbreak of the mosquito-borne Zika virus that threatens to keep some athletes and tourists away from Rio.

In a brief speech at the torch-lighting ceremony, Ms Rousseff said the torch relay would put Brazil's beauty on display, but she also laced her comments with guarded references to her fight for political survival.

"I am certain that a country whose people know how to fight for their rights and to protect their democracy is a country where the Olympics will have great success in the coming months," she said.