China kicks off Olympics Opening Ceremony

BEIJING, China -- China opened the 29th Olympic Games on Friday with stunning fireworks as the Asian nation kicked off the biggest and most scrutinized Games in history.

Drummers perform during the opening ceremony for the Beijing 2008 Olympics Friday.
Fireworks shot off across the Chinese capital as thousands of drummers, acrobats, martial artists and dancers performed under a light display at the National Stadium, drawing applause from the estimated 90,000 in attendance.

Children representing each of the 56 ethnic groups in China marched out into the stadium, also called the "Bird's Nest" because of its unique appearance.

The ceremony was an artistic mix of performance and light that was depicting China's 5,000 years of history.

It was a stunning beginning from the nation of 1.3 billion people. Some media observers have said they believe the Opening Ceremony would be the single most watched television event in history.

Billions of dollars in the making, the 2008 Summer Games have been seen as carrying the ambitions of a nation closing the door to world isolation, and seeking its place as a global superpower.

Earlier Friday, the anticipation over the Beijing Olympics was unmistakable in China's capital city. Thousands were on hand early at Beijing's Tiananmen Square to witness the traditional flag raising ceremony by soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

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The Olympic torch relay, the focus of protests during parts of its international leg earlier this year, was expected to conclude at 11:30 p.m. local time (11:30 a.m. ET) when it enters Beijing's National Stadium to light the Olympic cauldron.

"This one, I think, is going to bigger and more spectacular ... not necessarily more surprising, but more impressive, I think, than any previous ceremony," said Ric Birch, who oversaw Olympic productions in 1984, 1992 and 2000.

In short, it's just what China wanted -- an opening ceremony with an impressive guest list. U.S. President George W. Bush is among more than 100 heads of state, heads of government and sovereigns expected to attend, the International Olympic Committee said.

The leaders represent countries including Japan, Russia, Australia, South Korea, and Brazil.

But this version of the Olympics brings with it controversy, discord that began in 2001 when the 2008 Games were awarded to Beijing. Criticism over China's policies on human rights for its citizens, its policies in Tibet and the persistent pollution across the country have been the focus of much international criticism and media attention.

The latest expression of that concern came on Friday. The head of the Australian Olympic Committee complained about pollution in China, as well as Internet access and uncomfortable transportation for his country's athletes to venues, according to news reports.

For some world leaders, the decision to attend was a tough call. French President Nicholas Sarkozy threatened to boycott the Games because of human rights abuses in Tibet, but later changed his mind.

And while he has steadfastly said he would attend the Olympics opening, Bush earlier Friday stressed China's need to respect human rights.

"It's inevitable that people from different countries may not see eye to eye," Chinese President Hu Jintao said recently, "so we should try to expand our common ground on the basis of mutual respect."

Political leaders do not attend Olympic opening ceremonies as a matter of protocol -- Bush is the first American president to attend them outside the United States -- but China seemed determined to have as many there as possible, taking it as a sign the world recognizes the legitimacy of the Chinese government.

"They want those leaders to confirm the fact that China has returned to great power, prominence in the world," said David Zweig, a political analyst at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. "They really want to say to the people of China that we, the Communist party of China, have done a great job."

Many secrets about the ceremony remained until the end, such as which athletes would run the final legs of the torch relay, and who would light the Olympic cauldron at the stadium. Blog: Anticipation builds

Early favorites to light the cauldron -- national sports stars Yao Ming and Liu Xiang -- were widely discounted because they had already had carried the torch during the relay.

Many observers speculated that the person lighting the Olympic cauldron would be connected to the devastating May earthquake in China, that claimed nearly 70,000 lives.

As for the Games, an estimated 10,000 athletes from 205 countries will compete in 28 events for about 300 gold medals. The first medals will be awarded on Saturday.

China has put a priority on finishing first in the overall medal standings. On Sunday, swimming competition begins, along with U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps' quest to win eight gold medals -- more than any individual in a single Games. Even if he fails, Phelps could become the all-time leader in gold medals.

The competition -- 17 days in length -- will be a relative blip compared to the years of preparation that went into bringing the games to Beijing.

China means it to be a coming-out party. Like many parties, Chinese leaders won't know how it went until it's time to clean up.


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