The Beijing Olympics will open today, firing the starting gun for the world’s ultimate sporting competition.
Over the next 16 days, more than 10,500 of the best international athletes will compete for the 302 gold medals up for grabs across 28 sports.
The Games of the 29th Olympiad, being held in China for the first time, will officially open at 8.08pm local time (1.08pm ) on the 8th day of the 8th month of the year. For the superstitious, the number eight is associated with good fortune.
A spectacular fireworks display will mark the occasion – not surprisingly, considering the Chinese invented them.
Beijing Olympic officials promised that fireworks of different shapes would be set off over the main Bird’s Nest stadium, the Olympic Forest Park and a section of the Great Wall.
Besides Beijing, Qingdao will hold the sailing competition, Hong Kong will be the location for the equestrian events, and football will be played in Tianjin, Shanghai, Shenyang and Qinhuangdao.
The closing ceremony will bring down the curtain on August 24 before the Paralympic Games take over from September 6-17.
The Games slogan of One World, One Dream is intended to capture China’s aspirations to open its doors to the world through the Olympic Games and leave a lasting legacy for their population of 1.3 billion people.
However, while the communist nation’s economy has made huge strides thanks to its manufacturing industry, the country continues to suffer from poverty in rural areas, high levels of pollution and criticism of its human rights record.
Previous Olympic Games, which are held very four years, have struggled with problems such as completing facilities in time whereas Beijing has faced challenges of a different kind.
Protests during the torch relay and critical words by world leaders, such as US president George Bush, have characterised the build-up.
Two British Free Tibet campaigners returned to the UK yesterday after being arrested for unfurling flags and banners outside the Beijing stadium.
More than 40 Olympic athletes have signed an open letter to Chinese president Hu Jintao condemning the country’s human rights record.
Backed by Amnesty International in Germany, the letter calls on Hu “to protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion and freedom of opinion in your country, including Tibet”.
More protests are planned during the Games, including one at the Chinese Embassy in London today.
With environmental concerns also high on the international agenda, China has come under fire for its pollution problems.
However, the head of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, yesterday praised Beijing’s efforts.
In an attempt to improve the atmosphere, heavily-polluting factories have suspended operations while cars are being banned on alternate days.
Setting aside those issues, sport is the ultimate aim of the Olympic Games, representing the culmination of years of hard work by athletes desperate for medals.
The nation’s eyes will be on British stars in particular as they go for gold.
Team GB consists of more than 300 British competitors who are hoping their performances give them a solid footing for success at the 2012 Games in London.
UK Sport has set its sights on 41 medals for a chance to achieve an overall target of 8th place in the medal table.
British medal hopes suffered a setback just before the Games with the withdrawal of boxer Frankie Gavin but, over the coming days, attention will be focused on stars such as Paula Radcliffe, Tom Daley and Kelly Sotherton as they run, dive and jump for glory.