After seven years of buildup and billions of dollars in preparations, world leaders and China's elite gathered on Friday for the most lavish opening ceremony in Olympic history. But Beijing residents without a ticket were asked to stay home. Millions of workers in the teeming Chinese capital were given the day off and many shops were shut on Friday, as Beijing traffic officials advised people to reduce outdoor visits and watch the opening ceremony at home on television in an effort to reduce congestion.
Wang Lijun, who works in the real estate business in Beijing, said he was thinking about going to watch Friday night's extravaganza on a giant screen at one of 24 live sites set up around the city. But he had not made up his mind yet and the opening ceremony was not that important for him, anyway.
"It's the actual competition that's worth watching," he said. "I don't have any tickets to Olympics events but my family and I will watch them on TV. We are looking forward to watching the sports that China will excel at like ping pong and badminton."
Roads in the city of 17 million were closed around the National Stadium, known as the Bird's Nest, and traffic restrictions were in force near central Tiananmen Square and the Great Hall of the People where Chinese President Hu Jintao met with foreign leaders. Away from the highly manicured games precinct, the Olympics buzz was there, but more subdued.
Du Chao, 30, who runs one of the few small shops opened in Beijing's main business district, said he would close the shop early because he expects his usual customers to be at home watching the ceremony. Business hadn't been good this month because of the games, he said. Still, he was excited.
"These types of things happened only once in a thousand years," Du said as he sold water and ice cream. "I've even bought a small television so I can watch all these football matches in my shop." Chen Xiaowei, a mother who brought her two children from the western city of Xi'an to see volleyball, said they will stay in the hotel.
"We will go home tonight to watch the opening ceremony together because we don't want to run into crowds outside," she said. "Also it's much cooler in the hotel."
For Chinese dissidents, human rights lawyers, and other activists who have dared to challenge the rule of the Communist Party, which has spent more than US$40 billion on the games and enlisted the support of the entire nation, the start of the Olympics meant more surveillance and tighter restrictions.
"I have no plan for tonight," Jiang Tianyong, a human rights lawyer, said from his home. "It's not my Olympic Games. It's not the games for the ordinary people."
Jiang who lives in Changping, a Beijing suburb, said police were coming to question him in the afternoon.
"I don't know if I will come home tonight," he said. "I want to say something: International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has said the games will bring fundamental changes to China. I will reserve my opinions on that."
While festivities were muted and one of the Olympics slogans of "I participate, I contribute, I enjoy" seemed unlikely for most, some residents still were trying to make the best of the date the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of the new century. Chinese consider eight to be an auspicious number because it sounds like the word for prosperity.
The official Xinhua News Agency said a record 16,400 couples had registered to get married on Friday.
Others started to place bets on Olympics events. Robert Zhang, 25, who works in the retail business, was watching a giant screen in downtown Beijing. He said he was going to put a bet on the German and US soccer teams, because eight is a lucky number.
"I believe that eight is a good luck number but today is 88 days since the Wenchuan earthquake, so I have my doubts," he said, referring to China's May 12 earthquake in Sichuan province that killed nearly 70,000.
The Olympics have been a huge source of national pride, and many Chinese say it is the realization of a 100-year dream for the country. The concept dates from Zhang Boling, a sports enthusiast who founded Nankai University in the port city of Tianjin, who wrote in an article in 1907-08 on his dream for a Chinese Olympic team. The idea held particular resonance at the time with China, as its ancient imperial system was in crisis, the country was divided by Western powers and had been defeated by Japan in battle.