The summer Olympics kicked off today with a spectacular barrage of fireworks that ended with China's Li Ning, a six-time medalist, vaulting through the air on wires to take a victory lap around the rim of the massive stadium.
The lavish pageant -- and a blanket of security -- dwarfed anything previously seen at an Olympic opening ceremony.
The countdown to the Games was marked by 2,008 drummers pounding out the final seconds and, as the rockets were launched skyward, acrobats on wires descended from the rim of Beijng's new National Stadium, whose unique design has made it a star of the Olympic show.
Inside the stadium, dubbed the Bird's Nest, 91,000 people, including heads of state and royalty, were awed by the pyrotechnics overhead. To accommodate the crowds in the sprawling capital, fireworks were launched from 32 sites around the city. A worldwide television audience was expected to be as large as 4 billion.
The ceremony was full of elegant touches carried out by a cast of thousands that thrilled its audience.
When the lights went down in the stadium at 8 p.m., the Bird's Nest looked as if it had been transformed into a grand theater. A giant scroll unrolled as dancers dressed in black glided across the paper, painting Chinese characters with their arms and legs.
At one point over a thousand Chinese dancers wearing boxes over their heads formed the Chinese character for harmony, delighting the 91,000 in the stadium.
The Beijing crowd was boisterous and exuberant. Typical were the thousands of people at Ditan Park in central Beijing watching two large screens.
They cheered wildly and waved flags when the camera panned to Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russian President Vladimir Putin arriving. But when it showed President Bush entering the stadium, they jeered. Bush has criticized Chinese repression over the last two days.
The crowd, as fired up as any in a U.S. ballpark, also happily booed when a glitch cut the video for several moments.
The biggest outburst came when the last of the 204 teams entered the Bird's Nest. That team was Team China, led by Houston Rockets star Yao Ming holding the hand of a second-grade boy who survived the devastating Sichuan earthquake earlier this year. A deafening roar rose up in the city and Hu was seen on TV giving the team a special salute.
The fiery climax of the four hour extravaganza was the lighting of the Olympic torch. A relay by eight top Chinese Olympians brought the torch to four time gold medal gymnast Li Ning who was lifted by a wire into the air, through the roof of the Bird's Nest. After running a lap around the rim of the stadium roof carrying the torch, he finally lit the flame, triggering a barrage of fireworks throughout Beijing.
"I am so moved and proud tonight to see my country put on such an Olympic Games," gushed Wei Yiping, a journalist with the night off watching the beginning of the Games in the park.
Wang Dan, a student at the University of Economics and Foreign Trade, was just as proud. "This is the biggest holiday for Chinese people... This is a chance for the world to meet China," she said.
The extravaganza was billed as the largest-ever opening ceremony for the Olympics and it boasted some truly Olympian numbers:
- 30,000 fireworks
- 14,000 performers
- 80 world leaders
- 100,000 cops