Now ascendant as a global power, China welcomed scores of world leaders to an opening ceremony watched by 91,000 people at the eye-catching National Stadium and a potential audience of four billion worldwide. It was depicted as the largest, costliest extravaganza in Olympic history, book-ended by a barrage of 30,000 fireworks.
To the beat of sparkling explosions, the crowd counted down the seconds before the show began. A sea of drummers — 2,008 in all — pounded out rhythms with their hands, then acrobats on wires drifted down into the stadium as rockets shot up into the night sky from its rim.
Three hours later, the parade of athletes concluded with the entry of the 639-strong Chinese team, led by flag-bearer and basketball idol Yao Ming alongside a nine-year-old schoolboy who survived May’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan province.
The welcome — by a frenzied, chanting, flag-waving crowd that sought to cool itself with paper fans in the stifling heat — was thunderous. And moments later, the crowd erupted again when President Hu Jintao declared the Games formally open.
US President George W Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among the snotables who watched China make this bold declaration that it had arrived.
Mr Bush, rebuked by China after raising human-rights concerns this week, is the first US president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.
Already an economic juggernaut, China is given a good chance of overtaking the US at the top of the medal standings with its legion of athletes trained intensely since childhood. Showdowns are expected in women’s gymnastics, where the US and Chinese teams are co-favourites and in the pool where Chinese divers and US swimmers are expected to dominate.
The run-up to the Games had epic storylines — China investing €27 billion to build the needed infrastructure, reeling from the catastrophic earthquake in May, struggling right up to yesterday to diminish Beijing’s stubborn smog.
China’s detentions of political activists, its crackdown on uprisings in Tibet and its economic ties to Sudan — home of the war-torn Darfur region — fuelled relentless criticisms from human rights groups and calls for a boycott.
Second-guessed for awarding the Games to Beijing, the International Olympic Committee stood firmly by its decision. It was time, the committee said, to bring the Games to the homeland of 1.3 billion people, a fifth of humanity.
The story presented in yesterday’s pageantry sought to distill 5,000 years of Chinese history — featuring everything from the Great Wall to opera puppets to astronauts, and highlighting achievements in art, music and science. About 15,000 people were in the cast, all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films ran foul of government censors for blunt portrayals of China’s problems.
He produced some majestic and ethereal imagery — at one point a huge, translucent globe emerged from the stadium floor, and acrobats floated magically around it to the accompaniment of the Games’ theme song, One World, One Dream.
The show’s script steered clear of modern politics — there were no references to Chairman Mao and the class struggle, nor to the more recent conflicts.
A record 204 delegations paraded their athletes through the stadium — superstars such as tennis great Roger Federer and basketball’s Kobe Bryant, as well as plucky underdogs from Iraq, Afghanistan and other embattled lands.
The nations were marching not in the traditional alphabetical order but in a sequence based on the number of strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese. The exceptions were Greece, birthplace of the Olympics, which was given its traditional place at the start, and the Chinese team, which lined up last.
By all indications, most Chinese have embraced the Games, buying up tickets at a record pace, volunteering by the thousands for Olympic duties, nursing expectations of triumphs by their home team.
To their eyes, the omens were good. The ceremony began at 8.00pm on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008 — auspicious in a country where eight is the luckiest number.
“It is not easy to meet with such a date,” said Wang Wei, secretary general of Beijing Organising Committee. “Hopefully this lucky day will bring luck.”