BEIJING — Using a cast of thousands, China set out to impress the world Friday night with a high-tech, fireworks-filled opening ceremony to an Olympic Summer Games heightened by China's patriotic ambitions and controversy over the country's environmental problems and human rights record.
Some 91,000 people filled the landmark National Stadium on a hot, humid night under an opaque pall of haze while some 15,000 performers flew through the air and swirled in geometric formations on the stadium floor.
More than 80 world leaders and royalty took in the spectacle, including President Bush and first lady Laura Bush, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Bush's visit marked the first time a U.S. president has attended the games in a foreign country.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world watched on TV as the spectacle unfolded — except in the United States, where NBC anchors on the network's Today Show made no mention that the ceremony was unfolding just a short distance away. The network was set to broadcast the celebration in prime-time in the United States, hours after it had ended, and the anchors referred to it as if it had yet to take place.
Despite Chinese fears of unwelcome political protests, none of the nearly 11,000 athletes from 204 nations strayed from the host country's script as they marched into the stadium. By midnight Friday night, the athletes filled the stadium floor and gawked together at the nearly 30,000 fireworks shells set off around the stadium.
All across this metropolis of 17 million people, crowds of Chinese also watched the ceremony, but on outdoor screens set up in streets and parks. They erupted in raucous cheers when China's 639-athelete delegation, the games' biggest, entered the stadium led by National Basketball League star and Chinese national Yao Ming. Experts predict the Chinese team to win this year's medal count.
"After 100 years of Olympic history, this is the first time China has had the games," said 19-year-old Chen Foeng Gwang, one of more than 2,000 performers in the ceremony's demonstration of the Chinese martial art tai chi chuan. "That's why we're so proud to be here."
Similar nationalism shaped the ceremony as it told China's millennial history in a multimedia spectacular that turned the stadium's interior into a giant stage of video projection, fireworks and tens of thousands of lights.
The ceremony began with more than 2,000 performers pounding traditional Chinese fou drums that flashed as they were hit, forming giant numbers on the field that counted down the seconds until the ceremony's launch.
The show, which was designed by Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou, went on to detail in dance, costume and special effects what the program notes said were the four main inventions of ancient China - the compass, gunpowder, moveable type and papermaking.
The show also featured massive demonstrations of Chinese culture, such as traditional opera, scroll painting and martial arts, all elaborated with sophisticated lighting and epic music. About a third of the performers were members of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, which includes the world's biggest standing army.
Chinese gymnast Li Ning, the winner of six 1984 OIympic medals, lit the torch in spectacular fashion by flying on wires along the stadium roof's oval rim and igniting a giant torch. This year's torch run had sparked mass protests in London, Paris and San Francisco by activists denouncing what they said was Chinese repression in the western province of Tibet.
Chinese organizers had guarded the spectacle's contents like a state secret, but leaked footage of a rehearsal shot by a South Korean camera crew revealed details about the ceremony weeks in advance.
The Chinese government has spent some $40 billion preparing for the Olympic Games and laid nothing less than its sense of national identity on the line. The Chinese built dozens of venues, including the giant, metallic latticed National Stadium, and remade this capital city with new roads and landscaping to impress the hundreds of thousands of people expected to visit.
Many have billed the 18-day event as the country's coming-out party after three decades of spectacular economic growth.
"What China has tried to do through this mega-event is to inform the world that it's a new China, with a new economy," said Xu Guoqui, the U.S.-based author of the book "OIympic Dreams: China and Sports, 1895-2008."
"China's interest in the Olympic Movement has always been closely tied to its desire to join the world. That political content will be there in this ceremony."
International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge acknowledged the Chinese mood during the ceremony.
"For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games," Rogge said. "Tonight, that dream comes true."
Yet the ceremony, like the games themselves, has been mired in controversy.
In February, U.S. film director Steven Spielberg resigned from his role as an artistic adviser to protest Chinese support for the government of Sudan, which arms and supports militias that have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the country's Darfur region.
Scattered protests about Chinese policy in Tibet and its repression of some religious groups have broken out around Beijing before the games. Some critics have also voiced concerns about the air pollution covering Beijing.
Adding to the controversy, U.S. athletes chose Sudanese-born runner Lopez Lomong, who was a war refugee, to carry the U.S. flag into the stadium. He led a delegation Friday that included basketball star Kobe Bryant and swimmer and eight-time Olympic medal winner Michael Phelps.
Nonetheless, the 596-member U.S. team won a particularly enthusiastic welcome from the sell-out crowd Friday night, as did the four-member Iraqi team and the delegation from the island nation of Taiwan, announced in the stadium as "Chinese Taipei," which the Chinese consider a rebel province.