ANCIENT OLYMPIA, Greece (AP) — Alex Ovechkin says he's thrilled to kick off Russia's Olympic torch relay for the Winter Games in Sochi — a mammoth effort covering the country's nine time zones and a trip to outer space.
"I'm going to be probably smiling all the time and I'm going to remember this stuff for all of my life," the NHL star said late Saturday after arriving in Ancient Olympia for Sunday's flame lighting ceremony.
Ovechkin will be the first Russian to run with the torch on Sunday after Greek alpine skier Ioannis Antoniou will take it out of the ancient stadium in southern Greece, the birthplace of the ancient Olympics.
"I going to tell my kids, my grandkids, and it's probably one of the biggest moments in my life," Ovechkin said. He sidestepped controversy over Russia's record on gay rights, saying only that he was looking forward to the competition.
"To be honest with you I'm a hockey player and I'm not (into) politics," he said. "In this kind of situation you'd have to ask those (in) politics." Games organizers described Ovechkin as a natural choice for the relay start.
"From the beginning of this effort, he was our proud ambassador for the games ... beyond the borders of Russia and this is why it's absolutely natural that he was selected," Dmitry Chernyshenko, chief Sochi organizer, said.
"We saw how popular he was in Russia and abroad. ... He's charismatic and he has a great smile." The Russian leg of the torch relay is set to cover 65,000 kilometers (40,390 miles) before the Feb. 7-23 Winter Games.
Over 123 days, it will be carried by 14,000 torchbearers in Russia. "The Olympic torch will travel by reindeer, dog sled, snow mobiles, boats and even hot air balloon and many other vehicles, and of course by foot, by car and tens of thousands of kilometers by train, by plane," Chernyshenko said.
The flame would be carried into space on Nov. 7. "It will go to the North Pole by nuclear power icebreaker and yes it will travel to space ... and the same torch will be used to light the flame during the opening ceremony."
A practice run for the torch lighting was held on Saturday. Hundreds of tourists watched, took photographs and clapped as actresses dressed as ancient priestesses used the sun's rays, focused in a parabolic mirror to light the flame that will be kept in reserve for the actual ceremony on Sunday, to be attended by Thomas Bach, the new president of the International Olympic Committee.
Saturday's rehearsal went off with one minor hitch: The first torchbearer, Greek Antoniou, had trouble with his torch and waited patiently but in vain for it to light. "We didn't know they were going to use the torch in the rehearsal, so the gas bottle had been removed," Chernyshenko said. "It's been built to work in some very difficult terrain and freezing temperatures. So it will be fine tomorrow, you will see."