The starting time of 8 p.m., Aug., 8, 2008, was considered so auspicious among the Chinese that 16,400 couples registered to get married today. Many Chinese believe eight to be a lucky number.
More than 10,500 athletes -- including such stars as Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming -- have poured into Beijing for the 16 days of competition, and hours before it all began President George W. Bush took a break from diplomacy to rally the American team.
"We want you to win as many golds as you possibly can. Go forth, give it all you got," the pumped-up president told the athletes before having his picture taken with them.
Bush visited them with his wife Laura and his father, former President George H.W. Bush, the U.S. team's honorary captain. "It's got to be really exciting, thinking about marching in that stadium and representing our country, " an enthusiastic Bush told the cheering American contingent gathered in the Olympic fencing center. "We appreciate all the hard work you've put in to get to this spot."
Earlier in the day, Bush gave the Chinese leaders one more poke while dedicating a massive new U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He prodded China to "let people say what they think," a shot at the country's pre-Olympic roundup of dissidents and censoring of the Internet during the games.
"We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful," Bush said.
The Chinese government had pointedly suggested that the American president butt out of its affairs.
The stunning launch of the Olympics capped seven years and billions of dollars spent on planning for the Chinese, as well as months of protests, battles with smog, police crackdowns and threats by terrorists.
The months before today's lavish ceremony has been marked by China's brutal repression of protests by Tibetan monks and ensuing anti-Chinese protests around the world. Even the world tour of the Olympic torch became a tug-of-war, as heavy Chinese security kept crowds away while activists tried to grab the torch or extinguish it.
China was also rattled in the middle of its rush to get ready for the games by a massive earthquake that devastated its Sichuan province.
But it was the issue of security that has dogged the pre-game planning, and it continued through the ceremonies. An Air China jetliner flying from Japan to China turned back early today and the departure of four others was delayed after an anonymous e-mail threatened to bomb the planes.
In China's restive Muslim region of Xinjiang, police shut down the capital's usually busy bazaar today after receiving threats that an Islamic group might target buses, trains and planes during the Olympics.
And a pro-Tibet group says three American activists have been detained after trying to protest near the venue for the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. Students for a Free Tibet executive director Lhadon Tethong says the trio was grabbed by police as they traveled to the Beijing National Stadium, where they had planned to hold Tibetan flags during the opening.
And pro-Tibetan groups held protests outside Chinese embassies in several countries in an effort to steal the limelight from the Olympics' debut. One protester set himself on fire outside the Chinese embassy in Istanbul.