ATHENS, Greece -- In a re-enactment of an ancient ceremony, a flame was lit in Athens on Saturday for the Winter Games of the Special Olympics in Alaska next month.
Children in traditional Greek costume and senior officials from Greece and the United States watched the event held in honor of more than 2,500 disabled athletes who will compete at the March 4-11 games in Anchorage.
''In Anchorage, the world will be taught a lesson,'' said Timothy Shriver, president and chief executive officer of the Special Olympics. ''No child should be laughed at or forgotten, no parent should be told that their child cannot belong, and no society should be allowed to treat those with special needs any less well that any other citizen.''
Saturday's event resembled the flame-lighting ceremonies held every four years for the Olympics at Olympia, birthplace of the ancient games.
Twelve disabled girls dressed in white as high priestesses held doves and olive branches. One of the girls stepped forward to light the flame from the sun's rays in a concave mirror.
Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos said the spirit of the Special Olympics would encourage those preparing for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
''The Special Olympics represents a dream that more and more people share every day,'' Avramopoulos said. ''We are in the middle of a great effort to prepare for 2004 ... Greece must and will succeed.''
The Special Olympics, winter and summer, are held during non-Olympic years. Athletes from about 80 countries will participate in Anchorage.
The torch was carried by Special Olympics athletes and police officers around sites of Athens. It was to be stored in a mining lamp and flown to Alaska on Sunday.
The flame will be kept by the state's police before more than 100 police volunteers from around the world carry it on a relay around Alaska, reaching Anchorage's Sullivan Arena for the start of the games.
The athletes will compete in seven sports, including skiing, skating and snowboarding, which is making its debut.
The Special Olympics was established in 1968 by Shriver's parents, Sargent and Eunice.
Attending Saturday's ceremony were NATO's supreme allied commander, Gen. Joseph Ralston; Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch; and a delegation of U.S. senators: Ted Stevens of Alaska, Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, John Warner of Virginia, Conrad Burns of Montana, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado and Pat Roberts of Kansas.
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