ATHENS (AFP) - The Olympic torch was formally handed over from Greece to organisers of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games on Saturday, just weeks before it will be carried into space.
In sunny weather at the Panathenaic Stadium that hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896, the torch was presented to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak by the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee, Spyros Capralos.
Attending the handover ceremony was Greek President Karolos Papoulias.
"The Sochi Winter Olympics will not only become a part of Olympic history but will also make a sufficient contribution to the development of trust, friendship and respect of various cultures and countries," Kozak said addressing the spectators.
He thanked the Greek people "for maintaining the Olympic values" said it was "a great honour for me to represent Russia with pride and accept the flame."
Capralos said that the Olympic movement provides "a message of peace and solidarity among nations and that the Olympic flame is a symbol which unites all nations."
"The Olympic flame is part of Greece and our heritage," Capralos added. "We are very proud of handing over the flame." Some 15,000 spectators attended the brief ceremony, which included a parade of Greek presidential guards dressed in traditional attire and a ritual dance by white-clad actresses dressed as ancient priestesses.
The Olympic flame was lit in Ancient Olympia last Sunday and embarked on a week-long journey through Greece ending at Panathenaic Stadium.
The torch was brought into the stadium by seven-times Greek figure skating champion Panagiotis Markouizos.
From Greece the flame will be flown on Sunday to Russia to be carried through all 83 Russian regions and visit 2,900 towns and settlements before arriving in Sochi for the opening ceremony on February 7 ending a 65,000-kilometre journey.
About 14,000 torchbearers are expected to carry the torch.
The torch relay will make history when it is taken into space for the first time later this year.
It is due to travel to the International Space Station where it will then be taken on a spacewalk.
According to the Sochi organisers, the torch is due to arrive at the station on the Soyuz TMA-11M manned spaceship in November, and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Ryazansky and Oleg Kotov have been tasked with the historical assignment.
For safety reasons, the torch will not be lit during the spacewalk, the organisers said.
Following the mission, cosmonaut Fyodor Yurchikhim, who is currently based in the station, will deliver the special cargo safely back to earth.