China is hoping the Olympics will showcase three decades of progress [AFP]

China has opened the Beijing Olympics with a burst of fireworks at a spectacular ceremony that celebrated ancient Chinese history and aimed to draw a line under months of political controversy.

An army of 2,008 drummers pounded out the countdown to the games, in a display that gave China an opportunity to show off its economic might, but also galvanised critics of the communist government's human rights record.

Hu Jintao, the Chinese president, declared the Games open.

Jacques Rogge, head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said: "For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games.

IN DEPTH


Coverage from the 29th summer Olympics

"Tonight that dream comes true. Congratulations, Beijing!"

In a spectacular finale, Li Ning, a former Chinese gold medal-winning gymnast, was hoisted high above the stadium on wires.

In slow motion, Li Ning carried the Olympic torch on its final leg around the rim of the stadium before setting the giant Olympic cauldron ablaze.

Worldwide audience

About 80 world leaders, including George Bush, the US president, joined 91,000 spectators in the Bird's Nest stadium for the opening.

The global television audience is expected to exceed one billion.

Fireworks rippled around the rim of the arena, with thousands of red, green and blue strobe lights flickering in the auditorium.

A forest of drumsticks turned a luminous red, flashing bright in the hazy, humid air.

"Friends have come from afar, how happy we are," the drummers chanted before a series of giant fireworks were set off, blasting across the heart of the Chinese capital and crossing Tiananmen Square as they progressed to the Bird's Nest.

The authorities opened Tiananmen Square, scene of a bloody crackdown of a student uprising in 1989, ahead of the ceremony to let people watch the fireworks, prompting thousands of Beijing residents to rush into the vast esplanade screaming "Go China!"

Friday's ceremony capped seven years of work that reshaped Beijing and sets the seal on an industrial boom that has boosted China's international standing.

However, the Olympic spotlight has brought attention to the unrest in its Tibetan region showing that the Chinese leadership is not ready to brook any internal dissent.

Big budget

The Olympic games is costing $43bn, dwarfing the previous record of $15bn spent by Greece on the Athens Olympics in 2004. Thousands of people were moved out of their homes to make way for state-of-the art stadiums.

National pride at the transformation of China has being building and the Bird's Nest crowd roared in approval when high-stepping soldiers took the national flag from the hands of a group of children representing the country's ethnic groups and hoisted it above the stadium.

The games run until August 24, with 10,500 athletes from a record 204 nations competing for 302 gold medals in 28 sports.

Chinese athletes, in the biggest Olympic team ever, are expected to do well.

About 14,000 performers and 29,000 firework shells were primed for Friday's show, with film director Zhang Yimou, whose work was once banned in China, creating cinematic vision of 5,000 years of Chinese history.

The choreography extended well beyond the stadium.

The Olympic games carry a record $43bn price tag [AFP]
A force of 100,000 police fanned out to prevent attacks and protests, while dissidents have been kept out of sight.

But early foreign activists issued an on-air challenge to the host city early in the day with a pirate radio broadcast, calling for the freeing of political prisoners and lifting of censorship.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, issued an appeal at the ceremony calling on warring nations to honour a traditional truce during the games. "I call on all those engaged in hostilities to respect it," he said.

Unfortunately for the Olympic ideal of global harmony, the two Koreas failed to agree to march at the opening as a unified team even though they managed that in 2004 and 2000.

Flags and medals

The most famous face of Chinese sport, 7ft 6in NBA basketball player, Yao Ming, will lead his team at the ceremony.

US athletes chose Lopez Lomong, a former Sudanese refugee, to carry their flag around the track. Lomong was a victim of government-sponsored Arab fighter groups who fled Sudan aged six and spent 10 years in a refugee camp before settling in the US.

China is a major oil investor in Sudan and earlier this year Hollywood director Steven Spielberg resigned as an adviser on the opening ceremony in protest over China's ties with the country.

Most of the compeitition will take place in Beijing, but will stretch more than 2,000km, with equestrian events in Hong Kong, football played around the country and yachting in the eastern city of Qingdao.

Events began two days ago with women's football, but the first full-day in 18 disciplines, including swimming and gymnastics, begins on Saturday. Seven gold medals are up for grabs.

Among the early competitors is Michael Phelps, the US swimmer, who could become the first athlete to win eight golds in a single games and the most titled Olympian ever.

Record crowds are expected, with seven million tickets sold guaranteeing capacity audiences - a stark contrast to Athens when some sports played out to empty stands.

But as in 2004, the build up to the Beijing games has been marred by drug taking. A number of athletes have failed tests in the past few weeks. Officials say 4,500 doping checks will be carried out.

Source: Agencies