A stream of athletes carried the hopes of their nations over the Olympic threshold into the greatest adventure of their sporting lives.
Others, lesser known and untried, nurtured dreams of glory that may never bear fruit.
Whatever their background and aspirations, the flag bearers walking proudly in Friday's breathtaking opening ceremony at the Athens Games will never forget the thrill of leading their national team on to the biggest stage of them all.
Although there were gold medallists and world champions in the massed ranks behind them, fame was not the key to their selection.
American basketballer Dawn Staley was one of those basking in the occasion, a veteran of the 1996 and 2000 gold medal-winning U.S. women's teams walking out to cheers that dispelled fears of boos over the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
"Carrying the flag is a ray of hope," said the 34-year-old, who has set up a foundation to help youngsters in the Philadelphia neighbourhoods where she grew up.
"A little girl from the housing projects of North Philly is leading the U.S. team into the Olympic Games. It's bigger than any basketball game I've ever played."
Afghanistan were led out by a woman athlete in a shimmering green dress while the tiny Palestinian team emerged to a rapturous welcome behind 800 metres runner Sanaa Abu Bkheet, signalling V for victory with raised fingers.
Both Koreas, technically still in a state of war but united by sport, marched together behind South Korean women's volleyball player Koo Min-jung and North Korean official Kim Sung-ho waving a unification flag.
But Iran provided a reminder of other conflicts with judoka Arash Miresmaeili, a double world champion who knew his Games were over after being drawn against an Israeli, chosen as their flag bearer.
Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has refused to recognise the state of Israel's right to exist.
China, Asia's main medal hopes, walked taller than anyone -- behind NBA basketball player Yao Ming. At 2.26 metres, he is the tallest athlete to compete in a Games.
Greece, stepping into the full Games glare just as a drug-testing debacle threatened the future of Olympic 200 metres champion Costis Kenteris, placed their national pride on the powerful shoulders of weightlifter Pyrros Dimas.
The three-times Olympic champion, now 33 and dubbed "Miracle Man" after a series of comebacks, is seeking a record fourth successive weightlifting gold.
Malaysia had the shortest, youngest and lightest man -- Bryan Nickson Lomas, a 14-year-old diver named after former Manchester United and England captain Bryan Robson. He was dwarfed by the flag above him.
"We wanted to make a strong statement of our confidence in our young people," Malaysia's team manager Mani Jegathesan said before the ceremony.