Beijing welcomes friends from afar
© Foto-net

Even though the Olympic Football Tournaments are already underway, Friday marked the official start of the Beijing Games. With a swirl of colour and fanfare, the cauldron was lit with unparalleled pageantry as 5,000 years of Chinese history was put on display for the watching world, in front of more than 91,000 in the Bird's Nest stadium and an estimated television audience of over four billion.

With a combination of drumming, dancing, chanting and snippets of the ancient wisdom of Confucius, the first portion of the ceremony highlighted China's past. Following an intricately choreographed performance, the Olympic teams - all 204 and them - paraded their way around the track decked out in their finest garb, illustrating the Confucian theme: "we welcome friends from afar, how happy we are."

From Lesotho to Germany and Japan, all corners of the globe were represented as flags waved, world leaders stood in awe and flash bulbs burst.

With the group stages of the Men's and Women's Football Tournaments being staged in venues outside of Beijing, as far away as Shanghai, most of the players were unable to attend the stunning event. The USA men's side, based in nearby by Tianjin, did make the trip and a thrilling, once-in-a-lifetime lap.

The final team out was, as tradition dictates, the hosts. Basketball star and Chinese sporting hero Yao Ming carried the flag, but it was nine-year-old Lin Hao, marching right beside the big man, who received the biggest roar from the crowd. The youngster became a symbol of strength and compassion throughout his homeland after saving two of his classmates from a crumbling schoolhouse in May's horrific earthquake in Sichuan.

Acrobats dangled from wires, a giant globe rose up from the floor of the stadium, the singing of the official Olympic song took spectators' breath away, and swirling lights and projected images made for a pure feast for the senses. The proceedings took a sober turn with speeches from Local Organising Committee chairman Liu Qi and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge. The IOC chief pleaded for an honest event, directly appealing to the athletes to think not only of competition but also the Olympic spirit and its principles of cooperation and friendship.

In the grandest of finales, three-time Chinese gold medalist from Los Angeles 1984 Li Ning was hoisted to the rafters of the stadium, where he completed a surreal lap of honour before lighting the Olympic cauldron to officially open the Games of the 29th Olympiad in Beijing.