Beijing dazzles: Chinese history, athletes on parade as Olympics begin
Olympic flame's lighting by multiple-medal-winning gymnast signals for the Games to begin
After a dazzling show that put China on display to the world and a parade featuring a record number of athlete delegations, the Games of the 29th Olympiad were officially opened Friday with the lighting of the Olympic flame at the Beijing National Stadium.
Chinese President Hu Jintao declared the Games officially open shortly before the spectacular lighting of the flame at the Beijing National Stadium by retired gymnast Li Ning, a six-time medallist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
Li, whose presence had been kept a closely guarded secret by Olympic organizers, was raised by wires high above the crowd, and circled the stadium with the flame until he reached the cauldron.
It was the highlight of an awe-inspiring opening ceremony launching 16 days of Games competition.
With a production overseen by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, the ceremony itself incorporated 5,000 years of Chinese history into a 50-minute show, which, coupled with the closing celebration, reportedly cost more than $100 million US.
And then all eyes were on the athletes, including Adam van Koeverden, the kayaker and gold-medal hopeful chosen as Canada's flag-bearer among the more than 330 athletes from the country competing at the Summer Games.
"It was the best experience of my life thus far," van Koeverden told the CBC.
The Canadians, speaking on cellphones, snapping pictures and waving to the crowd, received a warm ovation when they entered the stadium as the 63rd country in the parade, estimated to take up about two hours of the three hours anticipated for the entire opening ceremony.
"As we were coming through the tunnel, we were singing O Canada a couple times," said field hockey player Mike Mahood of Vancouver. "The energy is the best part about this thing.
"It's energy from a Canadian perspective and energy from a global perspective as well. It's pretty awesome."
Added Canadian rhythmic gymnast Alexandra Orlando: "It's just so unbelievable right now. It's my first Olympics and I've waited so long for this. It's incredible."
Chinese inventions artistically interpreted
The entertainment portion of the ceremony centred on revolutionary Chinese inventions of gun powder, papermaking, printing and the compass, the colourful and precisely choreographed ceremony featured everything from the Great Wall to opera puppets and astronauts, while highlighting historic achievements in art, music and science.
The ceremony kicked off with equal-parts pyrotechnics and power, as some of the 29,000 fireworks lit up the main route to the Olympic Stadium.
A countdown to the opening ceremony was led by a legion of 2,008 drummers who pounded out a hypnotic beat in unison, before the stadium darkened and only their glowing red drumsticks were visible.
The intense drumming gave way to the whimsical as flying acrobats soared across the stadium, while an illuminated replica of the Olympic rings was raised above the arena.
Papermaking was commemorated in unique fashion as traditional landscape paintings were projected onto a huge scroll and actors spelt out Chinese characters with their twisting bodies.
A series of giant grey boxes then surged out of the ground depicting printing blocks from Ancient China before they morphed into the Great Wall.
A traditional scene from a Chinese opera ensued, featuring portrayals of Terracotta soldiers. That gave way to a large group of blue-robed oarsmen with giant paddles, who depicted the Silk Road that linked China to the West.
Dancers covered in sparkling lights then emerged and came together to replicate the form of the Bird's Nest, as a young girl clinging to a kite string floated overhead.
Gasps of astonishment came from the crowd as a giant 16-tonne blue globe rose from the floor before the show culminated with British singer Sarah Brightman and Chinese star Liu Huan performing You and Me — the official theme song of the Beijing Games.
The event steered clear of references to modern China, with no mention of Chairman Mao nor to the more recent conflicts and controversies reported during the buildup to the Games.
While the production was lavish, the stage was equally impressive.
The stadium nicknamed the Bird's Nest, which will double as the main track and field venue for the Summer Games, is considered the largest enclosed space in the world.
The stadium hosted an opening ceremony capacity crowd of over 90,000, including over 60 sovereigns, heads of state and heads of government, notably U.S. President George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The ceremony, including the parade of athletes, continued for more than three hours and was broadcast to an expected audience of over four billion viewers worldwide.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper elected to skip the event, instead sending Foreign Minister David Emerson to head Canada's official delegation at the Games.
Harper joined German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk among world leaders who chose not to attend the Games.
In total, a record 204 delegations — more than 10,000 athletes are competing — entered the stadium, but didn't do so in their traditional alphabetical order.
Instead, the order was determined by a sequence based on the number of strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese. Greece, birthplace of the Olympics, was an exception, given its traditional place at the start, while the 639-member Chinese team lined up last.
NBA centre Yao Ming served as the flag-bearer for the Chinese delegation, marching with a young boy who survived the devastating earthquake that killed over 70,000 in the southwest region of the country in May.
The Olympics end Aug. 24.
With files from the Associated Press