SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The Olympic flame arrived in South Korea on Wednesday where it will be passed throughout the country by thousands of torchbearers on a 100-day journey to the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
South Korean figure skating prospect You Young will kick off the 2,018-kilometer (1,253-mile) trip from Incheon on Wednesday.
Pyeongchang’s organizers have designated 7,500 torchbearers to carry the Olympic flame, which arrived at the Incheon International Airport after a handover ceremony in Athens on Tuesday. Retired Olympic figure skating champion Kim Yuna, who is one of the country’s most popular sports personalities, joined South Korean Prime Minster Lee Nak-yon in igniting the flame to a ceremonial cauldron at the airport to mark the start of the Olympic torch relay.
The Olympic flame last touched the country 30 years ago when the 1988 Summer Olympics were held in the capital Seoul.
Preparations for the Feb. 9-25 games are being held amid tension over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile tests. There are also concerns over the huge costs for hosting the games and maintaining facilities that may have little use once the party leaves town.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has urged the North to participate in next year’s Olympics, said in a speech to lawmakers on Wednesday that the games are a “golden opportunity” to strengthen peace on the Korean Peninsula.
“Ensuring the success of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and Paralympics that are 100 days away is a national task,” Moon said.
Although a North Korean figure skating pair has qualified for the Games, it’s uncertain whether Pyongyang would allow the skaters to compete in Pyeongchang, a ski resort town just 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the heavily-armed inter-Korean border. North Korea boycotted the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea’s capital Seoul and has ignored the South’s proposals for dialogue in recent months as it accelerated its nuclear and missile development.
Through the relay routes, the Olympic flame will be carried in a specially designed torch, which will be guarded closely to ensure that the light doesn’t go out. After passing through Incheon on Wednesday, the flame will be carried through the southern resort island of Jeju on Thursday and Friday before re-entering the mainland. It will pass through capital Seoul in January.
Organizers hope that the torch relay will generate excitement for the Games, which have failed to dominate conversation in a country experiencing political upheaval and distracted by the North Korean threats.