With five rings ablaze in the middle of a manmade sea, the Olympics returned to its birthplace Friday in an epic homecoming heralded by a pounding heartbeat, a galloping centaur and an array of Greek gods followed by the world's greatest athletes.
"The Olympic Games: Welcome back to Greece!" an announcer cried to kick off the opening ceremony.
It was a moment many doubted Greek organizers could pull off, after years of worrisome delays and constant pressure to bolster the most expensive security network in Olympic history.
The ceremony also closed an important circle in sports, from the games' innocent rebirth in 1896 to the latest gathering in an age beset by fears of terrorism and instability.
"Greece is standing before you. We are ready. ... We have waited long for this moment," said the games'chief organizer, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki.
At dusk, a countdown video filled the screen at the Olympic Stadium — whose new weblike canopy was bolted into place only last month. The numbers clicked down from 28: one second for each of the games scheduled since the first modern Olympiad in an all-marble arena in central Athens. Each tick of the clock was accompanied by the amplified sound of a human heartbeat.
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Then, with a blast of fireworks around the stadium roof, the ceremony was fully under way. Minutes later, the five Olympic rings were ablaze.
"We did it! We did it!" chanted a group of Greeks in the stand waving their flag.
A round-the-clock work blitz — under broiling sun and blinding spotlights — managed to pull together the vast network of venues, transport links, villages and security needed for the athletes and heads of state at the first Summer Games since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
A sign of the security measures floated overhead — a blimp with supersensitive spyware. Outside the stadium sat symbols of the delays — dirt expanses instead of landscaped paths, idle cranes and trees planted just last week.
Earlier, an International Olympic Committee member who helped oversee the preparations noted how much was at stake if the Greeks failed the task.
"I think you have saved Greece and saved the IOC from great humiliation," Alex Gilady told Athens organizers.
Not surprisingly, Greek mythology played a central role in the extravaganza that officially began the Olympiad, a big-budget show running from reverent tradition to Las Vegas-style pageantry.
After the burning Olympic flames subsided, a boy on a replica of a ship sailed into the arena, waving a small Greek flag.
Then the centaur — the mythological half-man, half-horse — waded into the water and tossed a spear of light representing a javelin. From the center of the stadium rose a statue representing an ancient form from Greece's Cyclades islands. The form broke apart to reveal other figures from Greek history.
The ancient god of love, Eros, flew above two lovers dancing and playing in the water. Then Eros hovered over a procession of figures from Greek history — from ancient vase paintings to a tribute to the Greek shepherd, Spiros Louis, who won the first Olympic marathon.
"The great moment has come!" cried the announcer in the stadium. Moments later, the biggest parade of nations in Olympic history began with the appearance of Greek weightlifter Pyrros Dimas, who is seeking his fourth consecutive gold medal at the games.
Behind him more than 10,500 athletes streamed into the stadium.
There was huge applause for Afghanistan on its return to Olympic competition after an eight-year absense and with its first women athletes. Coach Nina Suratger, in a shimmering green robe and head scarf, carried the flag — one of 202 that filled the stadium field with a rainbow of colors.
The entrance of the U.S. team — led by basketball guard Dawn Staley — drew cheers. But some people also stood and put their thumbs down in an apparent show of displeasure for the war in Iraq. Moments later, the Iraqis entered to a roaring ovation.
The Chinese team was led by 7-foot-6 Yao Ming, who towered over even other baskeball giants in the main stadium field.
Paraguay carried a banner that read "From Horror to Hope" in apparent reference to the supermarket fire that killed nearly 400 people earlier this month.
Greece, because of its links to the ancient games, entered first, as usual. But, as the host nation, Greek athletes also were the last into the stadium in the biggest procession in Olympic history.