The biggest showcase in the build-up for the Olympics begins on Monday, March 24, with the lighting of the Olympic torch in ancient Olympia, Greece. It signifies the start of the international Olympic torch relay and in keeping with the rest of the Beijing Olympics' preparations it's on a grand scale.

Featuring a cast of thousands of torch bearers and covering more than 85,000 miles, the international relay route is a whirlwind tour of 23 cities across five continents in 34 days.

At the end of the international part of the relay the torch will wind its way through mainland China, with the highlight its ascent up Mount Everest in May, before ending up in Beijing for the pomp and pyrotechnics of the opening ceremony on August 8.

Each city that will host the torch has nominated a number of runners to carry it through it streets. Australian Olympic heroes Ian Thorpe and Ron Clarke will be two of the bearers as it makes it way through Canberra, while elsewhere national sporting champions, members of the public, as well as the inevitable corporate sponsors, will be taking their turn holding the specially designed torch.

Traditionally, the torch relay has been a chance for the International Olympic Committee and host country to highlight the positive ideals of the Olympic movement. "Journey of Harmony" is its official theme, and given the backdrop of violence and unrest in Tibet and worldwide protests, the organizers will be hoping it will be just that.

At a news conference on March 19, Jiang Xiaoyu, executive vice president of BOCOG, reiterated that the torch relay program was intended to "convey the message of peace and harmony" and that any attempts to disrupt the torch relay were "against the spirit of the Olympic Games ... those activities will not win hearts and minds of people and therefore are doomed to failure."