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Olympic flame handed over to Sochi Games organizers; peaceful protest at Russia anti-gay law

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ATHENS, Greece - The Olympic flame was handed to organizers of the Sochi Winter Olympics in a ceremony at the site of the first modern summer games on Saturday.

Actress Ino Menegaki, dressed as a high priestess, who lit the flame in Ancient Olympia last Sunday, lit a torch from a cauldron inside Athens' Panathinaiko Stadium. The flame, placed in a lantern, was handed over to Hellenic Olympic Committee president Spyros Kapralos, who, in turn, handed it to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.

After a seven-day run through Greece, the flame will cover 65,000 kilometres (40,000 miles) on Russian soil. The record-setting relay will start on Monday in Moscow, in a ceremony attended by Russia President Vladimir Putin, and will finish in Sochi on Feb. 7, the opening day of the games.

The flame will travel through all 83 Russian regions, from the enclave of Kaliningrad in the west, to Chukotka, the region facing Alaska, to the east.

In a brief speech before the handover of the flame, Kozak referred to the "difficult road" the games organizers and the IOC had travelled from the day the Olympics were awarded to Sochi, in 2007. Kozak said organizers had undertaken "the biggest investment project in the history of the Olympic Games."

The Sochi Olympics are projected to be the costliest ever. Spending on infrastructure is projected at $50 billion, up from the $12 billion estimate at the time the city won the bid.

"We will fulfil all the engagement we have undertaken to the Olympic movement," Kozak added.

The Winter Games have drawn the wrath of gay rights activists who have pointed out at discrimination against gays in Russia and a recent law banning "homosexual propaganda." The International Olympic Committee has warned participating athletes not to make a public issue out of this during the games.

Inside Panathinaiko Stadium, two activists silently raised a rainbow flag, but there were otherwise no demonstrations during the ceremony.

Early Saturday afternoon, as the flame moved from the Acropolis, where it had stayed overnight, to a cauldron inside the courtyard of the Acropolis Museum, a few dozen gay rights activists gathered on the museum's steps in a peaceful protest. Some held rainbow flags, while others held a banner reading "Homophobia is not in the Olympic Spirit" and "Love is not Propaganda." Another banner mentioned "Putin's victims" allegedly beaten, raped or murdered for being gay.

"The Olympics should have taken a stand against this law in Russia because the Olympic ideals are for supporting human rights and diversity and that's not what's happening in Russia," said protester Zak Kostopoulos.

Police presence was light and there were no incidents.

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Associated Press writer Derek Gatopoulos and APTV's Theodora Tongas and Raphael Kominis contributed.

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