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Olympic Flame Begins Its Journey

June 7, 2000

ULURU, Australia (AP) _ Beneath the soaring crimson rock that is sacred to Aborigines, Nova Peris-Kneebone became the first Olympic torchbearer on Australian soil.

Peris-Kneebone, who in 1996 became the first Aborigine to win an Olympic gold medal, took the torch, which was ignited in ancient Olympia, Greece, on May 10, and arrived Thursday in the vast, sparsely populated outback.

She then started it on a 99-day, 16,740-mile journey around the island continent that ends in Sydney on Sept. 15, for the start of the 2000 Summer Games.

The solemn torch ceremony took place at the base of Uluru, the massive red monolith that looms over the sunburned landscape in the heart of Australia.

The flame, in a miner’s lantern, was carried off the plane by Sydney organizing committee board member Anna Booth.

She handed the torch to Australia’s Governor-General Sir William Deane, who witnessed the lighting of the torch in Greece.

Deane passed it over to eight members of the Uluru family, all among the traditional owners of the surrounding Uluru-Katu Tjuta National Park, who handed it over to Peris-Kneebone.

Uluru _ about six miles wide and about 1,142 feet high _ was dubbed Ayers Rock in 1873 when William Gosse located it and named it for Sir Henry Ayers, then governor of South Australia state.

Aborigines have inhabited Australia for about 40,000 years and Uluru goes deep into their ``Dreamtime,″ an intricate belief system that intertwines spirituality and traditional law.

From a population believed as large as 1 million before whites arrived, Aborigines have dwindled to 386,000 in a mostly white population of 19 million.

They are by far the poorest and most disadvantaged minority in Australia, with high rates of illness and alcoholism, a life expectancy 20 years shorter than that for whites, and dismal numbers for education and housing.

For the 29-year-old Peris-Kneebone, it was important for her as an Aborigine that the Olympic torch was welcomed at Uluru, ``into the belly of Australia.″

Peris-Kneebone said she was becoming more emotional as the her big moment drew closer.

``To be an Aboriginal person myself and to carry that flame _ the world’s going to be talking and it’s a chance for us to tell the world about our culture,″ she said.

Peris-Kneebone won her gold medal in Atlanta in field hockey.

She switched to track and field, won a gold medal in the 200 meters at the 1998 Commonwealth Games, and is vying for a spot on Australia’s track and field team this year. She was chosen as the first of 11,000 torchbearers ahead of such Aussie athletes as Greg Norman, Karrie Webb and Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

``You get so many opportunities in sport but this is a once in a lifetime,″ she said.

Parks Australia spokesman Fraser Vickery said the Aboriginal community at Uluru was treating the ceremony as a special occasion.

``The fire-sticks thing is symbolic for them and also the use of the message which I think is the principle for the Olympic torch ... carrying the message from one city to another, so they can really relate to that,″ he said.

Scientists liken Uluru to a giant iceberg, with only the tip visible. Geologists estimate the rock pushed out from the ground about 70 million years ago.

The wait for the torch relay has only seemed that long for organizers of the Sydney Olympics, who gathered in Monte Carlo in 1993 to hear International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio announce that the Australian city had won the right to host the games.

Organizers had to build $1.92 billion worth of stadiums from scratch, while the New South Wales state government plowed money into infrastructure.

Since the flame was ignited May 10 at ancient Olympia, Greece, the public mood has swung from trepidation to excitement. The reality of holding the Olympics has started to sink in for many Australians.

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