Olympics: China Storms To Centre Stage As Beijing Games Open

BEIJING : The Olympic Games, costing an estimated 40 billion dollars and battered by political and environmental concerns, was declared open on Friday as China displayed its credentials as a modern, confident nation.

President Hu Jintao declared the Games open at the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in front of 90,000 spectators and a worldwide television audience of up to four billion.

“For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world’s athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games,” said Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee.

“Tonight that dream comes true. Congratulations, Beijing.”

Minutes later, the Olympic cauldron was lit by Li Ning, the Chinese gymnast who captured three gold medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

A three and a half hour opening ceremony, directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Zhang Yimou, featured 5,000 competitors from 204 nations parade in a lavish event, with 35,000 fireworks lighting up a typical, smog-filled Beijing evening.

A tightly-choreographed hour-long sector, shot through with themes from Zhang’s signature movies Hero and House of Flying Daggers, portrayed China’s colourful history from ancient dynasties to 21st century power.

In a country where eight is a lucky number, the ceremony burst into life at eight minutes past eight on the eighth day of the eighth month.

Organisers would welcome a dose of good fortune after seeing the build-up to the Games, planned as the crowning achievement of the country’s breathless economic transformation, often overshadowed by disputes over human rights, press freedom and unease in the West over Chinese foreign policy.

As tradition demands, Greece, the home of the ancient Olympics, led the parade of teams into the stadium with judoka Ilias Iliadis carrying his country’s flag.

But in a break from that famous tradition, the competing nations then filed through in the order based on the number of strokes of their names as written in Chinese characters.

China, with a 639-strong squad, brought up the rear led by flag bearer, and basketball superstar, Yao Ming unleashing a huge roar from the crowd.

Taiwan, classed as a breakaway province by China’s Communist rulers, were given a rapturous welcome when their 24 competitors filed through with Iraq’s five-strong delegation also attracting warm, sympathetic applause.

The United Arab Emirates were led by Sheikha Maitha al-Maktoum, the first woman to lead a Gulf nation at the Games.

Disabled swimmer Natalie du Toit, making history as the first athlete to compete against able-bodied competitors at an Olympics, led the way for South Africa.

South and North Korea, who failed to agree on marching in side-by-side, entered separated by three other nations.

Tennis legend Roger Federer led the Swiss in on his 27th birthday

Many heads of state attended the opening ceremony.

They included US President George W. Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak.

Before arriving in Beijing, Bush repeatedly highlighted during a speech in Thailand Washington’s “deep concerns” over religious freedom and human rights in China.

More than 100,000 security personnel have been called in to police the Games, amid fresh warnings of terror attacks from Islamic separatists while Beijing airport was also shut down just ahead of the start of the ceremony.

The streets were unusually quiet as many of the Chinese capital’s 17 million residents stayed at home after the city government declared a public holiday.

– AFP /ls

Channel News Asia

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