The Olympics returned home Friday in an epic welcome that many once believed Athens could not muster: venues completed after serious delays, security bolstered amid terrorist fears and the world's greatest athletes assembled at the site of the games' rebirth 108 years ago.
Under a new weblike stadium canopy — finally bolted into place only last month — the modern heirs of the Olympics hope to make the world forget the bumpy road to the opening ceremony and reset the clock to begin ticking down 16 days of competition.
Not surprisingly, Greek mythology plays a central role in the extravaganza to officially begin the Olympiad. What's startling, however, is that the round-the-clock work blitz — under broiling sun and blinding spotlights — managed to accomplish what many considered out of reach: pulling 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 attacks.
A sign of the unprecedented policing measures floated overhead: a blimp outfitted with supersensitive spy ware. Outside the 72,000-seat stadium were marks of the last-minute work: expanses of dirt, idle construction cranes and trees plants only last week.
In other Olympics developments:
The big-budget opening ceremony promises to run from reverent tradition to Las Vegas-style pageantry.
According to reports from rehearsals, hundreds of drummers will march into the stadium, pounding to the rhythm of a heartbeat. The infield will be flooded to symbolize Greece's connection to the sea. A ball of fire intended to look like a comet will fall into the water and light the five-ring Olympic symbol.
A boy on a replica of the ship then sails out into the arena. He waves a small Greek flag.
In another segment, a centaur — the mythological half man, half horse — tosses a javelin that begins the rise of a statue representing an ancient form from Greece's Cyclades islands. The form breaks apart to reveal other figures from Greek history.
The ancient god of love, Eros, flies above two lovers dancing and playing in the water.
Spectators will participate in the main ceremony by clapping and using flashlights and bells when signaled, according people who saw the rehearsals.
The Icelandic singer Bjork was one of the night's headliners.
The main part of the ceremony is "an allegoric journey of the evolution of human consciousness ... from the mythological perception of the world to the logical," said Dimitri Papaioannou, the concept creator of the ceremony.
The parade of nations also will have a distinct Athens stamp.
Greece, because of its links to the ancient games, will enter first, as usual. But, as the host nation, Greek athletes will also be the last into the stadium in the biggest procession in Olympic history.
Among the 10,500 athletes under 202 flags: the debut appearance of competitors from the sprinkling of Pacific atolls known as Kiribati, and the return of Afghanistan after an eight-year absence, with Afghan women for the first time.