Ricardo Mazalan, Associated Press
Lopez Lomong fulfills a dream Friday as he carries the U.S. flag into National Stadium at the head of the contingent of U.S. athletes.

BEIJING — There was a cast of thousands, the torch lit by a man hanging in midair, and enough fireworks for a lifetime of Fourths of July.

The power of imagination as complex as China, wanting so badly this hazy and steamy night to make a statement.

There was one new American citizen marching with a flag in his hand.

The power of a single man, who beat bullets to freedom.

China had so much to say at the opening ceremonies of its Olympics, and said it brilliantly.

The presentation was thoroughly made in China. This is just the place to mix distant history with current technology — where a giant ancient paper scroll longer than a football field could also be used partly as an IMAX screen.

It is just the place to put on the show with endless masses, costumed in vivid displays, proving the grandeur of carefully choreographed human waves.

All part of the message. If 4 billion viewers were watching, as the organizers said, was this not the perfect moment for a spectacular coming-out party? China had not seen a night like this. Not in 5,000 years.

But then again, was there any message more compelling than the moment Lopez Lomong walked into National Stadium?

No need for politicians in the VIP seats — including President Bush — to speak then of the issues of freedom and democracy, of Darfur and Tibet and the other issues that cloud China's Games, along with the smog. No need for protesters, nor those who would stop them.

One man emerging from the tunnel with his heart pounding, a parade of American athletes in blue blazers behind, said plenty.

"I don't have the words for it," Lomong mentioned Friday morning of his emotion. "I hope all the countries watch and will learn from where I came from."

The ceremonies spoke to China's rich past. Nearly a thousand performers created moveable type, the Silk Road came alive. And always, more bombs bursting in air, because China knows fireworks.

Lomong's story spans only 23 years, yet it shared the stage with Confucius and the Han Dynasty.

The made-for-TV movie of a young life is now well known.

Taken away from his family at the age of 6 one Sunday morning during Mass by the rebels in Sudan who wanted fresh fodder for their war.

His escape with friends, terrified boys outrunning men who wanted to kill them ("That's when my race started," he said).

Ten years in a refugee camp in Kenya. Then deliverance to America and a foster family in New York; a 16-year-old who needed instruction on how to turn on a shower, and was amazed at the chicken sandwich his new family bought for him at McDonalds. At the camp, there was a bit of chicken only twice all year — Christmas and Easter. Suddenly people were lining up at drive-thru windows to order all they wanted.

China had been eagerly anticipating Friday night for years, since the announcement that the Games would come to Beijing.

Lomong has long dreamed of the night, too. Back to 2000, and the day he walked five miles with friends at the refugee camp to see the Sydney Olympics on a black and white television — though he was not quite sure what the Olympics were. He watched an American named Michael Johnson roar to a gold medal in the 400-meter dash, and then weep afterward.

"I want to run as fast as that guy," he said that day. "I want to wear the same uniform."

Many questions Friday invited him to enter the debate on China's human rights record, including Sudan. Who would know the subject better than he? He could have stuck it to China had he wished, with a room full of world media there to lap it up.

He demurred. Friday was for something else. He was right to let his story do the talking.

As Lomong left the press conference area, the USA men's basketball team was entering. Hard to imagine two more different universes — the survivor from the refugee camp, and the NBA stars who were rich by 21.

Yet it was Lomong they wished to meet.

"We told him," coach Mike Krzyzewski said, "that when we march in tonight, we can't think of anyone better to carry our flag."

So this is where the long road led, for China's Games, and for one of the Lost Boys of Sudan.

China spoke with pomp and music, a breathtaking torch-lighting ceremony, and a giant globe rising from the center of a stadium.

Lopez Lomong walked alone, smile on face and flag in hand. The athletes of his new home followed.

Take your pick what most lit up the night.