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Greece approves replanting at Ancient Olympia

A column of the temple of Hera is seen with the burnt Hill of Kronos in the background at Ancient Olympia in southern Greece.Petros Giannakouris / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Greece approved an emergency plan to plant thousands of trees at the fire-ravaged birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games, hoping to green the site in time for the Beijing 2008 flame-lighting ceremony in March.

Work is expected to start next week at the 2,800-year-old site of Ancient Olympia, whose once-lush forests were wiped out by August's wildfires that killed 66 people in southern Greece.

Project officials pledged Tuesday that some 30,000 trees and bushes would be in place by mid-March.

The ceremonious lighting of the flame for the Beijing Games is on March 24. The replanting has been delayed for more than two months, and Greece's Olympic Committee warned last week that unless work starts soon the country risks "international disrepute."

"Planting will start in the next few days," said Maria Mathioudi, general secretary of Greece's National Agricultural Research Foundation, which drew up the rescue plan. "There will be teams working day and night, we have to meet the deadline."

The ancient Games were held in Olympia between 776 B.C. and A.D. 394. Forests around the site were obliterated by Greece's worst wildfires on record, but firefighters kept the flames at bay just short of the ruined temples and stadium.

The replanting will cost $3.9 million, to be covered by a donation from the John S. Latsis Public Benefit Foundation, which is providing an additional $1.9 million for replanting around Ancient Olympia by 2010.

The plans approved Tuesday by senior Culture Ministry officials aim to restore the area according to the descriptions of ancient writers. Workers will be planting cypresses, olive trees, pines, poplars and Judas trees up to 8 feet tall, as well as laurel and oleander bushes.

Some 3,000 cypress saplings will be imported from Italy, Mathioudi said.

Top priority will be given to the fringes of the archaeological site, including the Hill of Kronos and the Coubertin Grove, where the heart of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games, is buried.

The carefully orchestrated flame-lighting ritual has been held at Ancient Olympia before every Olympics since the 1936 Berlin Games.

Kneeling in front of the ruined Temple of Hera, an actress in the white gown and sandals of an ancient high priestess lights the Olympic flame using a concave mirror to focus the sun's heat on a silver torch.

The flame is transported to the host city by a relay of runners, with the last using it to ignite a cauldron at the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremony.

Beijing organizers plan to stage the longest torch relay in Olympic history — a 137,000-kilometer (85,000-mile), 130-day route that will cross five continents.