Beijing Olympics opens with dazzling ceremony

Posted on 7:03 AM by Sameer Shah

After years of planning by officials and training by athletes, the ceremony began just before the scheduled start time of 8.08pm in the Bird's Nest, China's national stadium.

Thirty-five thousand fireworks lit up the sky above 10,000 dancers and performers in the stunning stadium. An army of 2,008 drummers pounded out the countdown to the Games.

Twenty-nine colossal "footprints of fire" shot into the sky and "marched" through the city to Tiananmen Square in a dazzling, rolling display of pyrotechnics.

The huge cast chanted the words of a famous Confucian greeting: "Friends have come from afar, how happy we are."

Eighty world leaders including US President George W Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among the 91,000 people in the audience.

Around one billion people were expected to watch coverage of the ceremony on television.

The show, choreographed by China's most successful film director, Zhang Yimou, was a celebration of ancient Chinese history, with performers dressed in lavish costumes from different imperial dynasties.

A record 204 national teams began their lengthy parade through the stadium - not in the traditional alphabetical order but in a sequence based on the number of strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese.

The Games will officially begin when the Olympic torch, which was lit in Greece more than three months ago, lights the Olympic flame. That honour will fall to Li Ning, a former Chinese gymnast.

The torch has travelled more than 85,000 miles across 130 cities on its way to the Chinese capital, where the method of lighting the Olympic flame was being kept a closely guarded secret.

Beijing's international airport has been closed for the ceremony, and an extra 100,000 soldiers and police deployed onto the streets of the capital.

Chinese President Hu Jintao today told international dignitaries that the Beijing Olympics was an opportunity for both China and the world.

"The Beijing Olympic Games is an opportunity not only for China but also for the whole world," Mr Hu said in his toast at a welcoming banquet for foreign leaders and other VIP guests, including International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and Honorary President Juan Antonio Samaranch.

"We should carry forward the Olympic spirit of solidarity, friendship and peace, facilitate sincere exchanges among people from all countries, deepen mutual understanding, enhance friendship and rise above differences, and promote the building of a harmonious world featuring lasting peace and common prosperity," said Mr Hu.

China has come to a standstill for the ceremony, as there has been overwhelming support for the Games from the Chinese public, many of whom see it as the most exciting event of their lifetime.

The timing has been chosen to coincide with the luckiest possible minute this millennium. In a nation where eight is a lucky number, 8.08pm on the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year is as auspicious as is possible.

Gordon Brown, the prime minister, has chosen not to come to the opening ceremony, though he will be at the closing ceremony for the handover of the Olympic flag to London.

Earlier George W Bush explicitly indicated that China had a few more laps to go when it came to building a free society.

As the US president opened a massive US Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and "let people say what they think."

The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing's commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

A pro-Tibet group said today that three Americans had been detained trying to protest near an Olympic venue.

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