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Spectators awed as Games begin

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Dancers perform in the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics 2008
Thousands of years of Chinese history were at the centre of the show

Those who watched the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic Games from inside the stadium seemed unanimous in their praise.

"It was fantastic. I was so moved," said 20-year-old Zhang Qiong, as she sat down at the end of the event to contemplate what she had just seen.

It was hard to find someone who disagreed with her.

After seven years of planning, billions of dollars in spending and some bad publicity, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are finally under way.

Fireworks lit up the night sky at the end of a four-hour opening ceremony attended by performers, athletes, dignitaries and spectators.

Arguments forgotten

Beijing's big moment has already been dogged with controversy about air pollution, China's human rights record and media freedom.

This is much better [than work]. Watching it is more important
Taxi driver Guo Dejian

But the arguments were briefly forgotten during a truly spectacular opening ceremony watched by millions around the globe.

The event got under way when Chinese President Hu Jintao arrived in the VIP's stand with International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge.

Former Chinese President Jiang Zemin - in charge when China was awarded the Games in 2001 - sat next to his successor.

They sat in front of about 80 world leaders, who had all ignored calls to boycott the Games over China's treatment of Tibetans following unrest earlier this year.

China will no doubt be relieved that most world leaders decided to attend.

'Arduous'

It was a hot and humid night, and spectators sat fanning themselves throughout the show.

Dancers performs in the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics 2008
Years of planning went into the show

Many dignitaries took their jackets off, although China's Communist bosses, dressed almost identically, kept theirs on.

Zhang Yimou, China's most famous filmmaker, directed the opening ceremony, saying it had been a "glorious, but arduous" challenge.

"I've never worked with such a huge team," he said in the ceremony's introduction booklet.

The main entertainment consisted of a series of scenes, each reflecting a glorious aspect of China's long history, which the Chinese say stretches back 5,000 years.

It celebrated famous Chinese inventions, such as gunpowder, the compass and paper in an extravaganza of light, music and dance.

It also honoured its most famous sons, such as the philosopher Confucius and Zheng He, a Ming dynasty explorer who some believe discovered America.

But apart from two astronauts, there was not much about modern China. Perhaps with so much history to condense into so little time, there just was not room.

No protests

The organisers say they performed to a full house of 91,000 people but, oddly, there were small clumps of empty seats in some parts of the National Stadium.

Security appeared tight at the start of an Olympics the Chinese authorities fear could be the target of terrorists.

A man watches the opening ceremony displays outside the Bird's Nest stadium in Beijing on Friday
Outside the stadium there were more gripped onlookers

Male security staff wearing blue and white T-shirts occupied the whole of the stadium's front row, but there were no noticeable protests.

After the entertainment, it was time for the athletes to make their appearance. Once inside, they marched by several hundred cheerleaders.

Not surprisingly, China's national team got the biggest cheer from the audience, but spectators also showed their support for other Chinese competitors.

Hong Kong, which was handed back to China by Britain in 1997 but competes as a separate team, received loud applause.

As did Taiwan, a self-governed island that China considers its own. Because of the island's disputed status, it is forced to compete in the Olympics as "Chinese Taipei".

Excitement

Long before the opening ceremony began, excited spectators started arriving.

Beijing teenager Wu You attended the opening ceremony with her father. The family had only two tickets so her mother had to stay at home.

Song Lili
Song Lili spent two-and-a-half days travelling to Beijing for the ceremony

"I am very excited. I think the opening ceremony will be fantastic because the Chinese government really cares about it," said the 15-year-old.

Another lucky ticket holder, Song Lili, had spent two-and-a-half days on a train from Guizhou province in southern China to attend the opening ceremony.

After travelling such a long way, the 24-year-old had got a little lost at the end of her journey. "I can't find the way in, but I'm very happy," she said.

Her mother had travelled up to Beijing with her. They were both due to spend a few days in the Chinese capital before heading home.

Many Beijing residents not lucky enough to get a ticket to the opening ceremony watched on big screens placed around the city.

Taxi driver Guo Dejian was among more than 100 people who watched at a screen near the Workers' Stadium, an Olympic football venue.

He was not concerned about missing work for a few hours. "This is much better. Watching it is more important," he said.

But there were fewer people at the Workers' stadium than expected. The streets were empty. Most seem to have stayed at home to watch on TV.

The BBC's Jennifer Pak contributed to this story.


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