Mariia Vysochanska participates in the Olympic flame relay in Marseille. GETTY IMAGES

On Europe Day, and the second on French soil for the Paris 2024 flame after a 12-day-long boat journey from Greece, Mariia Vysochanska participated in the relay through the coastal city’s streets to begin an 11-week parade across France before lighting the Olympic cauldron on 26 July.

After the 19th-century three-masted barque Belem docked on Wednesday in the Mediterranean port, local football legend Basile Boli took the flame in front of the iconic basilica of Notre-Dame de la Garde on Thursday, before passing it on to a number of other celebrity sports figures, including former NBA champion and French national team basketball star Tony Parker or skier Cyprien Sarrazin, who collected the flame from Vysochanska.

It was a significant gesture for war-ravaged Ukraine, as conversations regarding its efforts to join the European Union speed up, now two years and counting after Russia’s invasion. The 21-year-old from Lviv, whose father is fighting at the front against Vladimir Putin’s army, had received a special invite to join the proceedings by the French government and was named 'captain' for the day, along with another 27 athletes representing each European country. “It is very hard to put all the emotions I experience into words,’' Vysochanska said. “I feel pride and incredible happiness that Ukraine became the 28th country (to carry the flame with EU countries), and that the captain has honoured me by letting me carry the Olympic flame.”

Anita Wlodarczyk. Poland's three-time reigning Olympic hammer champion, was also among the participants of the European collective that was in turn received by French authorities after handing off the torch to Sarrazin. “It’s a way to really insist on our solidarity towards Ukraine,’' said local Sports minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra. “We are doing a lot to make sure that they (Ukrainian athletes) can prepare in the best possible conditions at a time where they face that terrible war of aggression, and we want to really express that we support them the best we can.”

First day of the Olympic torch relay through the Marseille streets. GETTY IMAGES
First day of the Olympic torch relay through the Marseille streets. GETTY IMAGES

A vocal supporter of Ukraine since the beginning of the Russian invasion, French president Emmanuel Macron greeted the Belem’s arrival on Wednesday after hosting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Monday, when he thanked him for backing his idea of an Olympic truce in all conflicts, including the Russia-Ukraine war, during the Games. "Perhaps this could be an opportunity to work towards a sustainable solution [to the conflicts] in full respect of international law," he said then, hinting at the possibility of a ceasefire. Xi and Macron also discussed China's continued support for Russian leader Putin, amid repeated calls from France for the Asian powerhouse to use its influence to stop his actions against the neighbouring state.

The Olympic Truce is an ancient Greek tradition dating back to 776 BC. A "truce" (ancient Greek: ékécheiria, meaning "laying down of arms") was declared before and during the Olympic Games to ensure that the host city state would not be attacked and that athletes and spectators could travel safely to the Games and return peacefully to their respective countries.

Local hero Boli, who scored the only goal in Marseille's victory over AC Milan in the 1993 European Champion Clubs' Cup final, set off at 8:20am (0620 GMT) just beneath the famous golden statue of the "Good Mother", which watches over France's second-largest city. "It makes the heart beat and it's fantastic," said Boli. "It's the Olympic flame, it's the symbol of sport, of living together, of everything we can hope for in the world."

The legendary defender played his best ball at the Stade Velodrome next to 1991 Ballon d'Or winner Jean-Pierre Papin, also a torch bearer, as well as Ivory Coast great Didier Drogba, another former Olympique striker. "The start is important in sport," said chief organiser Tony Estanguet after the relay kickoff. "We got off to a good start... now it's on." These are only the first steps on 12,000-kilometre relay across France and its far-flung overseas territories before the opening ceremony in Paris.

Macron also praised the "unprecedented effort" of the security forces in Marseille and hoped the Olympics would bring France together. "I want our compatriots to imagine that this is a moment of unity and that we are capable of it and that we can be proud of it," he said. France, which was also the host in 1900, sees itself at the heart of the modern Olympic movement after a local aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin, revived the idea of the Games as practised by the Greeks until the 4th century BC.

Extremely tight security will be a constant feature as the torch travels through more than 450 French towns and cities and passes by dozens of tourist attractions, including the Mont Saint Michel. Around 200 members of the security forces are set to be positioned permanently around it, including an anti-terror SWAT team and anti-drone operatives.

The torch’s origin traces back to the ancient Olympics, when a sacred flame burned throughout the Games. The Paris Olympics will run from 26 July to 11 August, followed by the Paralympics from 28 August to 8 September.