ATLANTA -- Muhammad Ali sent the Olympic torch on its two-month journey to the Winter Games in Salt Lake City after a welcoming ceremony today in the last U.S. city to hold the games.
"This precious, magical flame can illuminate us all with its hope of a brighter future," said Billy Payne, who led Atlanta's effort to stage the 1996 Summer Games. "In its light, you can see the promise of a world united, not divided."
The torch relay -- averaging more than 400 miles per day -- will visit 80 American cities with about 11,500 people carrying it more than 13,500 miles before its arrival in Utah for the Feb. 8 opening ceremony.
For the first time, the torch relay will include a stop in Alaska on Jan. 24 when it makes a brief appearance in Juneau. So far about 30 Alaska torch bearers have been announced, including five current and two former Juneau residents, and the number could grow to as many as 45-50 torch bearers.
Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Hawaii are not on the torch route for logistical reasons.
Ali, who lighted the flame at the Atlanta Games, passed the torch to figure skater Peggy Fleming. Ali won a gold medal in boxing in 1960 and Fleming won a figure skating gold in 1968.
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Fleming and her former coach, Robert Paul -- a gold medalist in 1960 -- carried the flame on the first leg of its journey through Centennial Olympic Park in downtown Atlanta.
From the park, the flame was to visit Coca-Cola's headquarters, a General Motors assembly plant and Athens, Ga., before ending the day in Greenville, S.C.
Following an 11-hour flight from Athens, Greece, the torch landed at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport on a Delta Air Lines jumbo jet painted with the words "The Soaring Spirit" and pictures of American speedskater Bonnie Blair, ski jumper Ryan Heckman and luger Duncan Kennedy.
The flame was greeted by a dozen trumpeters from the Salt Lake City organizing committee who were dressed in white-and-purple cowboy hats and dusters.
Bill Spencer, a biathlete who competed in the 1964 and 1968 Olympics, carried the torch off the plane along with Nikki Stone, a gold medalist in women's aerials at the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
They passed the torch to Blair, a six-time medalist in speedskating, and her mother, Eleanor. Bonnie Blair's sister works as a Delta flight attendant and made the trip from Greece.
Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Salt Lake officials have begun promoting the Winter Games as a rallying point for the nation and an opportunity to demonstrate friendship among countries.
Among the torch bearers will be Lyz Glick, the wife of Jeremy Glick, one of the passengers aboard United Flight 93, which crashed Sept. 11 in Pennsylvania after passengers apparently struggled with hijackers. Glick is to carry the torch Dec. 23 in New York.
New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, baseball great Willie Mays, former San Francisco quarterback Steve Young and CNN anchor Paula Zahn are among 500 prominent people who will carry the torch. The rest were nominated by friends and family.
The 3-pound torch was designed by Sam Shelton, a professor of mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech, who also designed the torch for the 1996 Olympics. It was constructed to withstand weather ranging from minus 40 degrees to 80 degrees, including strong wind and rain, Shelton said.
The torch also will go airborne three more times on its route to Utah: from Miami to Mobile, Ala., on Sunday; from Milwaukee to Lansing, Mich., on Jan. 6; and from Seattle to Juneau, Alaska; and then to Spokane, Wash., on Jan. 24.