Greek veteran weighlifter Piros Dimas (R) and Chinese gymnast Li Ning light a cauldron with the Olympic Flame inside the marble Panathenaic stadium in Athens, May 17, 2012. Greece formally hands over the Olympic flame to a London delegation led by Princess Anne and including David Beckham on Thursday at the Panathenaic stadium where the first modern Games were held in 1896. (REUTERS/John Kolesidis)

By Alan Baldwin

ATHENS, May 17 (Reuters) – The flame for the London Olympics, which start on July 27 after a 70-day torch relay around Britain, was handed over on Thursday at a damp ceremony in the marble stadium that hosted the first modern Games in 1896.

The flame, lit from the sun’s rays at the home of the ancient Games in Olympia a week ago, was presented under grey and rainy skies to Britain’s Princess Anne by the president of the Hellenic Olympic Committee Spyros Capralos.

Transferred to a small lantern by golden torch from a cauldron, it will be guarded overnight in the British embassy in Athens.

It will then be flown on ‘Flight 2012′, a British Airways Airbus 319 called ‘Firefly’, to a naval air base in south-west England on Friday before the relay starts at Land’s End the following morning.

London Games chairman and twice Olympic 1,500 meters champion Sebastian Coe paid tribute to Greece and even thanked the hosts for providing suitably “British weather” in a Panathenaic Stadium exposed to the elements.

“Thank you for the warm hospitality and welcome that you and your country have extended to us, particularly for laying on the British weather this evening,” said Coe, who spoke after the heavens eased off and umbrellas were folded away.

“Like the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Flame belongs to the world,” he told spectators including London mayor Boris Johnson and former England soccer captain David Beckham, who was mistakenly referred to as “Sir” by the announcer.

Beckham, who will travel with the flame on Friday and is strongly tipped to be part of the first British soccer team since 1960 at the Games, shared an umbrella with Johnson as the rain lashed down.

COUNTDOWN BEGINS

The relay will travel 12,800 km around Britain and Ireland, taking in 1,018 villages and the 1,085-metre summit of Snowdon, before culminating with the lighting of the Olympic cauldron in the new stadium in east London.

“Millions of people across the UK are getting ready to do the best work of their lives to welcome you all,” said Coe, adding a similarly warm reception would be felt when the flame makes a brief trip to Ireland.

“I know the Dubliners will show us how to celebrate the Flame and its message of peace, goodwill and friendship.”

Johnson, re-elected mayor of England’s capital earlier this month, said the reality of hosting the biggest show on earth had finally hit home.

“The countdown begins now. This isn’t going to happen again in our lifetimes,” he told the BBC.

Greek president Karolos Papoulias, whose debt-stricken country risks bankruptcy and an exit from the European single currency, also attended the ceremony after naming a caretaker Prime Minister in an emergency government on Wednesday to lead Greece to new elections next month.

Greek rowing world champion Christina Giazitzidou carried the flame into the stadium, built in 330BC and reconstructed for 1896, with a branch from what is claimed to be the oldest olive tree in the world in her other hand.

As she entered, as if by celestial command, the rain eased and the sun tried to break through the cloud.

The final two torchbearers were Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas and Chinese gymnast Li Ning, who lit the cauldron at the 2008 Beijing Games, running together with the torch.

Cries of ‘Hellas, Hellas’ went up from the crowd as the cauldron in the center of the stadium was lit and five white doves were released by school children.

The relay will take in landmarks around Britain with the flame traveling by canal boat, cable car, tram, steam train, hot air balloon and even motorcycle sidecar on the Isle of Man TT course.

More than 95 percent of the British population will be within an hour of the route.

“We are reminded of our responsibility – like that of our predecessors in 1908 and especially in 1948 – to stage Games that use the power of sport to unite the world in a celebration of achievement and inspiration in challenging times,” said Coe.

“A Games that will inspire the next generation to choose sport.”