Thousands of trees will be planted at the fire-ravaged birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games to restore the area ahead of the Beijing 2008 flame-lighting ceremony in March, officials said Tuesday.
Work is expected to start next week at the 2,800-year-old site of Ancient Olympia, where lush forests were wiped out by August's wildfires that killed 66 people in southern Greece.
“There will be teams working day and night; we have to meet the deadline,” said Maria Mathioudi, general secretary of Greece's National Agricultural Research Foundation, which drew up the rescue plan.
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.”
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 30,000 trees and bushes are to be in place by mid-March.
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 flame-lighting ritual, scheduled for March 24, 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 – an 85,000-mile, 130-day route that will cross five continents.