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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 04:14 GMT 05:14 UK
Olympics open in Athens
A view of the opening ceremony in the Olympic Stadium
The 28th Olympic Games have begun in lavish style in Athens.

The Olympic Stadium hosted the opening ceremony in front of 72,000 spectators and an estimated global audience of four billion people.

Greek President Konstandinos Stefanopoulos declared the Games open after a spectacular theatrical celebration and procession of athletes.

The opening extravaganza marks the end of a rocky seven-year build-up and kicks off 16 days of sporting action.

Preparations have been blighted by controversy and the ceremony was played out against a backdrop of a drugs scandal involving Greece's top athlete Kostas Kenteris.

Prior to asking President Stefanopoulos to open the Games, International Olympic Committe president Jacques Rogge urged athletes to compete clean.

"Through your conduct, give us reasons to believe in sport that is increasingly credible by refusing doping and respecting fair play," Rogge said.

"Show us that sport unites by overriding national, political, religious and language barriers. May the Games be held in peace in the true spirit of the Olympic truce that was created here."

References to the Olympics returning to their spritual "home" ran through a ceremony that lifted the mood in Athens.

The evening began with the five flaming rings - the symbol of the Olympics - being lit on the flooded infield and ended more than three hours later with the lighting of the Olympic flame by Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, windsurfing gold medalist from the 1996 Games.

Hundreds of drummers performed a countdown to herald the start of memorable show that included an elaborate, balletic journey through Greece's rich and varied history.

Played out in a procession circling the stadium, the story included imagery from the previous occasions the Games were held in Athens.

Greece was the birthplace of the ancient Olympics in 776 BC and hosted the first modern Games in 1896 .

Athenians showed their delight in welcoming the Olympics back, giving the 9,000 performers a rousing reception as the theatrical show came to a close, before welcoming the athletes.

Great Britain, led by judo player Kate Howey, received a warm welcome, but one of the loudest cheers of the night was saved for the arrival of Iraq's team.

Other highlights included the debut of the small Pacific island nation of Kiribati and the return of Afghanistan to the Olympic family.

Malaysia boasted the youngest athlete at the Games as their flagbearer, Bryan Nickson Lomas, a 14-year-old diver.

The 202-team procession finished with the host nation entering the stadium to a standing ovation and filing round in near single file to chants of approval.

Several top names, including American swimming star Michael Phelps and his Australian rival Ian Thorpe, chose not to attend.

They are in action on Saturday when a host of sports stage their first events, including swimming, cycling, rowing, sailing and boxing.

Athens won the race to stage the 2004 event on 5 September 1997 at the 106th IOC session in Lausanne, defeating Rome in the final round of the vote by 66 to 41.

A hugely successful Games in Sydney in 2000 heaped pressure on Athens and building work fell behind schedule, casting doubts over whether the city would be ready to host the Olympics.

Security also became a major concern after the escalating worldwide terrorist threat in the last few years.

However, Athens mayor Dora Bakoyanni said that stringent anti-terror precautions - planned with the help of Nato among others - would ensure a safe Games without "negatively affecting the spirit of the great celebration".

After an evening Greece's Games organiser Gianna Angelopoulous described as "a unique Olympic homecoming", hopes will be high that controversy will be cast aside as sporting excellence takes centre stage.





Links to more Olympics 2004 stories


 

SEE ALSO
Torch arrives in Athens
11 Aug 04  |  Olympics 2004
Howey to fly British flag
11 Aug 04  |  Olympics 2004


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