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Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

ATHENS, Greece – It traveled 46,800 miles, across six continents and through 26 nations to arrive here, finally, on the outskirts of this sprawling, ancient city Wednesday.

And once again, the Olympic flame was greeted with cheering crowds and family picnics, honored carriers and humbled athletes. This is how it always is with this simple strain of fire, flickering with a representative spirit that transcends colors and creeds, political boundaries and popular belief.

The Olympic Movement. The Olympic Games.

That's it. That's all.

And right now, that's important. Perhaps more than ever.

One can only imagine what the flame has seen during its two-and-a-half month global journey – our world at its best and worst, richest and poorest, most hopeful and defeated.

The only constant was the reaction it received. The flame was celebrated in every last neighborhood, from Sydney to Seoul to St. Louis.

This is a big, diverse and complicated place. Every few years, the Olympics serve as a reminder of how much alike, not different, we all are.

The reality of the world, however, continues to crash the party. Tuesday, terrorist bombs went off in neighboring Turkey. News reports contained details of al-Qaida's plan to launch its next wave of global attacks with a prominent political assassination.

Wednesday, the world's flame passed by barbed wire and soldiers with guns. The atmosphere here is tense no matter how grand the party.

The flame returned to its birthplace, where it was first lit in 776 B.C. in the town of Olympia, to find a city holding its breath. Everyone here is aware that there are no guarantees things will go peacefully, smoothly, without incident.

This backdrop isn't new for the Olympics. The ancient games were abandoned in 393 A.D. in part due to politics. Three times in the last century (1916, 1940 and 1944) world war cancelled the games altogether. Twice (1980 and 1984) boycotts greatly limited participation.

Once again, the Games take place in a context of global unrest. Nearly every nation is against terrorism but how to combat it has proved to be a combustible issue, splitting people, nations and old alliances.

If there were ever an Olympics to shrug off as silly, wasteful, and unimportant in light of the serious challenges we all face elsewhere, it is these.

But it is during the most trying times that fun and games can be most important.

The nearly 200 countries – from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe – who sent athletes here to go faster, higher and stronger will always have more in common with each other than not. Friday, when the flame lights up Olympic Stadium to signify the start of the Games, we can break into nationalistic feelings but of the right kind. We are invited to root for athletes but not against, and recognize that individual genius emerges from the most unlikely of places.

The way African-American runner Jesse Owens crushed the idea of white supremacy in 1936 Nazi Germany.

The way Olga Korbut in 1972 showed Americans that even a Soviet athlete could be endearing.

The way the Jamaican bobsled team made the world smile in the 1988 Winter Games.

The way Australian aborigine Cathy Freeman struck a blow for indigenous people everywhere by winning the 400 meters in 2000.

The civilized world is under attack and the civilized world hasn't figured out exactly how to fight back. The Olympics will play out this time surrounded by guns and grim looks.

As they have before.

And the flame and its spirit burned on then, too.

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