China welcomed scores of world leaders to an opening ceremony watched by 91,000 people at the eye-catching National Stadium and a potential audience of 4 billion worldwide. It was depicted as the largest, costliest extravaganza in Olympic history, bookended by barrages of some 30,000 fireworks.
To the beat of sparkling explosions, the crowd counted down the final seconds before the show began. A sea of drummers — 2,008 in all — pounded out rhythms with their hands, then acrobats on wires drifted down into the stadium as rockets shot up into the night sky from its rim.
Three hours later, the parade of athletes concluded with the entry of the 639-strong Chinese team, led by flag-bearer and basketball idol Yao Ming alongside a 9-year-old schoolboy who survived May's devastating earthquake in Sichuan province. The welcome — by a frenzied, chanting, flag-waving crowd that sought to cool itself with paper fans in the stifling heat — was thunderous. And moments later, the crowd erupted again when President Hu Jintao declared the games formally open.
"For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games," IOC President Jacques Rogge said in his speech. "Tonight, that dream comes true."
Rogge mentioned the Sichuan earthquake, saying the world was moved "by the great courage and solidarity of the Chinese people." And he exhorted the assembled athletes, as role models for the world's youth, to "reject doping and cheating."