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Last Updated: Saturday, 14 August, 2004, 00:20 GMT 01:20 UK
Athens lights up the Games
By Andrew Fraser and Matt Davis
BBC Sport in Athens

Olympic Stadium
Greece's Olympic Stadium hosted an awesome ceremony
The road to the Athens Olympics has not been easy.

But on Friday night the whole of Greece finally breathed a huge sigh of relief and rejoiced in the return of the Games to their spiritual home.

Fears that the 28th Olympiad would not be ready and the ill-timed drug test controversy surrounding the nation's sprint heroes were forgotten in a spectacular three-hour celebration.

The organisers made a playful allusion to their deadline problems in a construction-based video presentation before the opening ceremony inside the showpiece Olympic stadium.

But, with the eyes of the world on the Greek capital, everything finally came together when it mattered.

Greece is going to fire the world's imagination
Athens organising chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki

Beneath the £80m twin glass and steel roof arches, 72,000 people looked on in awe at a complex ceremony drawing heavily on mythology and the ancient origins of the Games.

And, while world leaders and hundreds of VIPs watched proceedings at the stadium, locals and tourists crowded in front of televisions in bars and restaurants in central Athens.

Large queues had formed at the booths selling Olympic tickets during the day, amid a last-minute rush to buy before the start of the Games.

There was a carnival atmosphere as the Olympic torch made its journey from the Parthenon to the stadium, winding its way through the streets of the capital.

But a giant screen planned to relay the opening ceremony to the thousands without tickets was scrapped due to security fears, tourist guides said.

Greece's 1996 sailing gold medallist Nikolaos Kaklamanakis
Nikolaos Kaklamanakis was the final torch-bearer

At Syntagma Square, a large crowd was squeezed into the Eionikon café and, as the different nations paraded, cheers went up from groups of supporters.

Victor Zeteda, 22, and friends from Mexico were dressed in feather headdresses.

Judy Feng, a Chinese-American, was trying to get people to join in yoga-style exercises.

"People come from all over the world to the Olympics," she said. "We are here to spread our message of peace."

The opening ceremony began with a symbolic nod to the birth of the Games 2780 years ago as the giant video screen showed a drummer in ancient Olympia beating in time with his opposite number in the stadium.

After a dramatic and colourful parade representing the different stages of Greek history, the decibel level rose as weightlifter Pyrros Dimas carried the Greek flag into the stadium.

Hot on his heels were the St Lucia team, promoted to the front of the queue of 202 Olympic nations by the Greek alphabet.

Police helicopters, aeroplanes and a surveillance airship which loomed overhead throughout the day were a constant reminder of a city on alert for the first Games since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.

Produced by US company Jack Morton Worldwide
Rehearsal time: 600 hours over 85 days
2,500 performers
202 national teams
Cauldron flame: 6.5m high
Olympic torch: weighs 700g, 68cm tall.
Travelled 78,000km through 26 countries on five continents
Water used: 2.2m litres
Music: 18 composers

There were no apparent problems, and the arrival of the 500-strong American team prompted the loudest reception of the night so far.

But it was nothing compared to the roar when Dimas returned to the arena, followed by his Greek team-mates.

The ceremony achieved lift-off with a message from the International Space Station, before organising committee chief Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki declared: "Greece is going to fire the world's imagination."

Suspense over the identity of the final torch bearer ended when 1996 sailing gold medallist Nikolaos Kaklamanakis climbed the steps to light the giant Olympic cauldron.

It took Athens three years to wake up to the reality of hosting the Games.

But, after "running a marathon at a sprinter's pace", the message was clear.

Let the Games begin.

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