LOS ANGELES (AP) _ A fingernail-sized flame symbolizing the spirit of the Olympics arrived from Greece on Saturday to ignite the first torch in a 15,000-mile relay odyssey to the summer games in Atlanta.

The first of 10,000 people who will zig-zag the country in the coming 84 days jogged from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum _ site of Olympic games in 1932 and 1984 _ down a grassy path flanked by flags of the 197 nations competing this year.

Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson, who was the last to carry the torch on its international journey to the 1984 Summer Olympics, handed the torch off to Gina Tillman, granddaughter of Jesse Owens, who won four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

After running her leg, she embraced Janet Evans, who will seek a record fifth swimming gold medal in Atlanta, and Evans ran her half-mile leg.

The relay's path took it through Los Angeles communities rich and poor, including Koreatown and South Central Los Angeles, torn apart by riots in 1992.

Bruce Jenner, the 1976 Olympic decathlon champion, was also among those who will carry the flame to opening ceremonies July 19.

Jenner saw the start of the torch relay as a proud moment for a city wracked by the riots, fires, an earthquake and the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

``The flame has the ability for healing. We have been through so much in this city for the last few years,'' he said. ``Maybe everybody can kind of forget about what happened in the past and look to the future.''

Indeed, the arrival of the torch set off a festive atmosphere in Los Angeles. Strangers introduced themselves and shook hands and mingled over cake and amid balloons at one site.

Many said they were drawn by a chance to watch history literally pass them by.

``It was exciting to be a witness to what will probably be the greatest Olympic games because of the 100th celebration,'' said Vico Jimenez, 34, who had traveled from Pasadena to Griffith Park for the occasion. ``Just to view it in person will be something I'll remember the rest of my life.''

Laura Sitcer, from Fontana, who wouldn't give her age, said seeing the flame gave her goosebumps. ``I feel like I'm part of history,'' she said.

For Ray Leonard, who won a gold medal in boxing in 1976, the running of the torch closed out some personal history.

``I missed the closing ceremonies in 1976, so this is like my closing ceremonies,'' he said. ``You can see the American spirit, you can see the Olympic spirit.''

Leonard ran a half-mile chunk of the relay to Griffith Park north of downtown.

A helicopter bearing the flame descended from overcast skies into the coliseum early Saturday, where a throng of dignitaries and onlookers waited.

Maria Pambouki, a Greek high priestess, gingerly carried the flame through the Coliseum's famed peristyle and out of the stadium onto a stage, where Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, ignited the first torch.

He then lit another flame in a large, ceremonial cauldron on which ``Atlanta `96'' was engraved, drawing a roar from the crowd of about 1,500.

``The flame we see today, carried here from Olympia, represents a symbol of unity of all peoples,'' said Athens Mayor Dimitris Avramopoulos. ``Good luck Atlanta, good luck America.''

The ceremony took place against the controversial backdrop of two nude, headless statues erected at the entrance of the stadium for the 1984 Games.

The anatomically correct athletes created a stir earlier this week when it was reported that Atlanta Olympics officials wanted them covered up so as to not offend a national television audience. They were in place Saturday, uncovered.

Some onlookers, like 19-year-old Penny O'Brien of Valencia, regretted missing the Olympics here 12 years ago.

``I was too young in `84, so I'm here to see what it's all about,'' O'Brien said. She also planned to attend opening ceremonies in Atlanta.

``I was actually moved to tears by what people said about the history and the symbolism,'' said Tipper Gore, wife of Vice President Al Gore. ``They put it so well, and the music was wonderful.''

Mrs. Gore also read a statement from President Clinton.

``With this fire holds the promise of athletic excellence,'' Clinton wrote. ``This flame is a beacon that beckons the best in all of us.''