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
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.
That emphasis on security was evident today in the hours before the first fireworks exploded as the usually teeming Tianamen Square was swept clean of tourists and Chinese, leaving it eerily quiet and empty.
Despite the controversies and the heavy-handed security, Beijing was bursting with pride over its role as host to the world. China declared the day a national holiday. Taken aback by its citizens' enthusiasm, a Thursday night emergency meeting of Beijing district officials decided to decrease the number of outdoor screens showing the anticipated opening ceremonies out of fear that the city couldn't handle the crowds.
But as the world braced for the games, diplomacy asserted itself. On the eve of the ceremony, Chinese President Hu Jintao, Bush and other heads of state sat for a state banquet in the People's Congress. With around 80 heads of state and royal family members in attendance, the Chinese government did its best not to seat any enemies or rivals next to one another.
At the head table, Hu entertained Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom have been among the most vocal about the government's actions in Tibet and China's human rights record. Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin also sat with Hu. Seated next to Hu was International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge, the guest of honor.
The Associated Press contributed to this report