1 of 27
David Guttenfelder, Associated Press
An illuminated globe rises from the floor of the National Stadium during the opening ceremonies for the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing today.

BEIJING — Finally able to realize its dream to host the Olympic Games, the People's Republic of China showed what it could do with one National Stadium, hundreds of aerial wires, 14,000 performers, some 30,000 fireworks shells and seemingly as many LED lights equal to the dollar amount of the Beijing Olympics' estimated $40 billion budget.

Yes, the world's best athletes shared Friday night's global stage and spotlight with China — and China delivered, wowing the crowd of 91,000 and an estimated television audience of 4 billion with nonstop opening ceremonies that began with 2,008 pounding drummers and ended four hours later with a furious fireworks finale.

And that doesn't count the 75-minute pre-ceremony performance that featured nearly 30 different groups of regional and ethnic performers.

As with opening ceremonies for previous Games, Friday night's highlight was the lighting of the cauldron, done by Olympic gold-medal gymnast Li Ning.

After receiving the flame, Li was

carried by cables high above the National Stadium floor for a gravity-defying run at a 90-degree angle, sprinting along the roof's inside edge as a video-projected Chinese scroll unrolled before him en route to the cauldron.

"It shows the dream of Chinese sportsmen for generations and also the common aspirations" of the Chinese people, said Li, winner of three golds, two silvers and a bronze at the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

"The success of lighting the flame means the realization of China's 100-year-old dream," he added. "The flame also lights up the hope of (the Olympic motto) 'One World, One Dream."'

The ceremonies opened with drummers each pounding a "fou," a Chinese percussion instrument dating back more than 3,000 years. While drumming, they also chanted a Confucius saying, "Friends have come from afar, how happy are we."

Giant footprints made by fireworks then marched along Beijing's central axis — from the Temple of Heaven, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and on to the stadium.

The program's first hour underscored China's heritage in pen, ink, paper and movable type, followed by sessions highlighting Chinese opera, the nation's "Silk Road" routes via land and sea, and finally Chinese rites and music.

Then came portions that symbolized starlight, nature and the present-day and modern China, with a huge illuminated globe rising from the stadium floor to serve as a stage for the Beijing Olympics theme song, which included the lines "You and me, from one world, we are family."

Thousands of performers donned elaborate costumes and carried artistic props. They were lifted by wires high into the air and wore illuminating clothes to sparkle when stadium lights were dimmed.

President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among the glittering roster of notables who endured heat and humidity to watch China make this bold declaration that it had arrived. Bush, rebuked by China after he raised human-rights concerns this week, is the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.

Already an economic powerhouse, China is given a good chance of overtaking the U.S. atop the gold-medal standings with its legions of athletes trained intensely since childhood. One dramatic showdown will be in women's gymnastics, where the U.S. and Chinese teams are co-favorites; in the pool, Chinese divers and U.S. swimmers are expected to dominate.

With some 11,000 athletes scheduled to compete in the Beijing Games, the parade of athletes took a little more than two hours. Superstars such as tennis great Roger Federer and basketball's Kobe Bryant walked on the same path as underdogs from Iraq, Afghanistan and other embattled lands.

Greece — home of the ancient Olympics — took its typical spot in front of the 205 national delegations. China, as the host country, also followed tradition as the final group. A chanting, flag-waving crowd gave a thunderous welcome to the Chinese delegation.

The flag-bearer of the 639-strong Chinese team was basketball idol Yao Ming, accompanied by 9-year-old schoolboy Lin Hao, a survivor of May's devastating earthquake in Sichuan province.

And in between, the sequence seemed jumbled from the usual alphabetical order of Games gone by. The nations proceeded according the number of strokes needed to write the country's name in Chinese characters, from fewest to most.

That meant Guinea marched right after Greece and Zambia right before China. The nearly 600-member United States delegation, nattily dressed in white trousers, blue blazers, red-white-and-blue-striped ties and white caps, was in the latter half of the nations at No. 140.

"It was a breathtaking experience walking into the stadium," said Oganna Nnamani, a volleyball player from Bloomington, Ill. "I am thankful to be part of this moment."

The American flag-bearer was 1,500-meter runner Lopez Lomong, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, who spent a decade of his youth in a refugee camp in Kenya.

Besides China, other national delegations that received the most applause included Hong Kong, Taiwan, which in the Olympics competes under the name "Chinese Taipei," and the United States. Iran and Iraq also earned a noticeably greater crowd reaction than most other countries.

The run-up to the Games had powerful story lines — China investing $40 billion to build Olympic infrastructure, reeling from the Sichuan earthquake, struggling right through Friday to diminish the stubborn smog that enveloped the stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. China's detentions of political activists, its crackdown on uprisings in Tibet and its economic ties to Sudan — home of the war-torn Darfur region — fueled persistent criticisms from human rights groups and calls for an Olympic boycott.

The opening ceremony's script steered clear of modern politics — there were no references to Chairman Mao and the class struggle, nor to the more recent conflicts and controversies.

Second-guessed for awarding the games to Beijing seven years ago, the International Olympic Committee stood firmly by its decision. It was time, the committee said, to bring the games to the homeland of 1.3 billion people, a fifth of humanity.

After the athletes' entrance, the remainder of the program followed Games form — messages from Olympic leaders, the pronouncement of the Games to begin by President Hu Jintao, the presentation of the Olympic flag, the singing of the Olympic hymn and the offering of the athletes' and judge's oaths.

"For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games. Tonight that dream comes true," said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, who added, "Beijing, you are a host to the present and a gateway to the future."

Said Lui Qi, president of the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games: "For seven years, ever since Beijing won its Olympic bid, the hearts of 1.3 billion Chinese people have been pulsating in unison with the Olympic movement."

By all indications, the Chinese have overwhelmingly embraced the Games, buying up tickets at a record pace, volunteering by the thousands for Olympic duties, nursing expectations of triumphs by their home team.

To their eyes, the omens were good. The ceremonies began at 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008 — auspicious in a country where eight is the luckiest number.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-mail: [email protected]