Resurgent China opened the Olympics on Friday with a burst of fireworks at a spectacular ceremony that celebrated ancient Chinese history and aimed to draw a line under months of political controversy.
An army of 2,008 drummers pounded out the countdown to the Games, which mark China's emergence from impoverished isolation to economic might, but have also galvanised critics of the Communist government's human rights record.
Around 80 world leaders, including US President George W. Bush, joined 91,000 excited spectators in the majestic Bird's Nest stadium for the opening show. The global television audience was expected to exceed one billion viewers.
Firecrackers rippled around the rim of the arena, strobe lights flickered and the forest of drumsticks turned a luminous red, flashing bright in the hazy, humid air.
The ceremony caps seven years of work that reshaped Beijing and sets the seal on an industrial boom that has boosted China's international standing.
"The historic moment we have long awaited is arriving," President Hu Jintao told leaders at a welcome lunch.
"The world has never needed mutual understanding, mutual toleration and mutual cooperation as much as it does today."
However, the Olympic spotlight has also cast a harsh glare on the nation of 1.3 billion people, bringing the unrest in its Tibetan region to the forefront and showing that the Communist leadership is not ready to brook any internal dissent.
The Games carry a $43 billion price tag, dwarfing the previous record of $15 billion splashed out by Athens in 2004, sweeping thousands of people out of their homes to make way for state-of-the art stadiums.
The Olympics were due to be formally opened at around 11 p.m. by the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge. The Games run until Aug. 24, with 10,500 athletes from a record 204 nations chasing 302 gold medals in 28 sports.
Locals expect Chinese athletes to underscore their country's newfound strength by heading the medals table for the first time.
Some 14,000 performers and 29,000 firework shells have been primed for Friday's show, with film director Zhang Yimou, whose work was once banned in China, offering up a sweeping, cinematic vision of 5,000 years of Chinese history.
The careful choreography extends well beyond the stadium.
A force of 100,000 police fanned out to prevent attacks and protests, while dissidents have been kept out of sight.
But early foreign activists issued an on-air challenge to the host city early in the day with a pirate radio broadcast, calling for the freeing of political prisoners and lifting of censorship.
Though Bush said he was coming for sport not politics, he reiterated on Friday "our belief that all people should have the freedom to say what they think and worship as they choose".
Like much of these Olympics, the opening ceremony has been caught up in politics with Hollywood director Steven Spielberg quitting as an adviser to protest at China's close ties with Sudan and the failure to halt killings in Darfur.
Highlighting the issue, the United States chose Sudanese-born athlete Lopez Lomong as their flag bearer on Friday. Lomong who fled government-sponsored Arab militias in Sudan at the age of 6 and fled to a refugee camp in Kenya before moving to America.
The best-known face of Chinese sport, 7ft 6in NBA basketball player Yao Ming, will lead his team into the Bird's Nest at the traditional athletes parade.
Unfortunately for the Olympic ideal of global harmony, the two Koreas failed to agree to march at the opening as a unified team even though they managed that in 2004 and 2000.
ALL EYES ON PHELPS
The Games are centred in Beijing, but will stretch more than 2,000-km, with equestrian events in Hong Kong, soccer dotted around the country and yachting in the eastern city of Qingdao.
The sporting action gets into top gear on Saturday with competition underway in 18 disciplines, including swimming and gymnastics, and seven gold medals up for grabs.
Among the early competitors is US swimmer Michael Phelps, who could become the first athlete to win eight golds in a single Games and the most titled Olympian ever.
Record crowds are expected to cheer on the athletes, with 7 million tickets sold guaranteeing capacity audiences -- a stark contrast to Athens when some sports played out to empty stands.
But as in 2004, the build up to the Beijing Games has been marred by drug taking. A number of athletes have failed tests in the weeks leading up to the Olympics and officials have promised about 4,500 doping checks in Beijing to root out the cheats.