Torchbearers in Marseille kick off the Olympic flame's journey across France

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MARSEILLE, France — Joyful crowds gathered along the streets of France's southern port of Marseille on Thursday to see torchbearers carrying the Olympic flame through the city's most emblematic sites, a day after it arrived on a majestic three-mast ship for a welcoming ceremony.

It was the first leg of an 11-week journey across the country for the torch, which will be carried by about 10,000 bearers as it passes through more than 450 towns until the Games' opening ceremony in Paris on July 26.

Former soccer player Basile Boli, who played with the Marseille team in the 1990s, kicked off Thursday's relay from the Notre Dame de la Garde basilica that overlooks Marseille and the Mediterranean.

"I'm very proud," Boli said. "You feel like you're on top of the world, because with an Olympic flame there's a special fervor. ... It's the symbol of sport!"

Basketball player Tony Parker later took his turn in the relay, praising "a great honor." On a nearby crowded beach, swimmers and sunbathers cheered the torch bearers as the flame passed.

"The enthusiasm of Marseille for the flame is phenomenal," Maurice Genevois, a local resident, said. "Honestly, I have rarely seen such a celebration."

Magali Evrard, who came from the town of Martigues, in Marseille's region, said "it's been so long since we started talking about this and now we're in it!

"We are on the road to Paris. We can't wait, it's great," she added.

A fencing champion, a skateboarder, a Michelin-starred chef and a comedian were also chosen to carry the flame on Thursday.

"Let's go for a fantastic celebration," said Tony Estanguet, president of the Paris Olympics organizing committee. "The Games are back in our country. ... Let's share this fantastic moment of celebration with millions of people in the country."

Participants were scheduled to run all day past landmarks in the city to bring the torch to the roof of the famed Stade Vélodrome, home to Marseille's passionate soccer fans. Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, a former star player for the Marseille club, was the last torchbearer of the day and lit the Olympic cauldron just outside the stadium.

Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said "it's fantastic to give that sense of pride to the French people and to show to the whole world what we're capable to achieve."

"'We're going to give happiness to the whole world," she added.

Torchbearers included Ukrainian gymnast Mariia Vysochanska, who won two gold medals at the 2020 European Championships and competed at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Her inclusion was an expression of solidarity with Ukraine as well as a symbolic gesture to mark Europe Day, which falls on May 9 each year. Vysochanska led a group of 27 other athletes who represent all European Union member states.

"It's a way to really celebrate Europe, its values and also to demonstrate our attachment to the European sport model," Oudéa-Castéra said. Ukraine received the green light last year to start accelerated talks on joining the EU.

"(Ukrainians) face that terrible war of aggression, and we want to really express that we support them the best we can," she added. "This is unity. This is hope. This is solidarity. And we want their victory."

Marseille on Wednesday celebrated with great fanfare the flame's arrival, with more than 230,000 people attending the ceremony in the Old Port, according to the city's mayor, Benoît Payan.

During the Games, the sailing competition and some soccer matches will be held in Marseille.


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AP journalists Jeffrey Schaeffer, Nicolas Garriga and Oleg Cetinic contributed to this story.


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