BEIJING // Opening ceremonies often reveal the soul of a nation and organisers hope their extravaganza will silence critics who say Communist China should never have been awarded the biggest sports event in history. An array of state leaders, including US President George Bush, will join 91,000 spectators in the colossal Bird's Nest stadium for the three and half-hour show that marks the culmination of a decade of lobbying, construction and controversy.
"My heart is bursting with excitement about the Games," said Zhu Shengqiang, a 22-year-old student walking through the vast Tiananmen Square with his girlfriend. "I want people to see what is special about China. We must do something a bit different from the other Olympics." The organisers say 15,000 performers and 29,000 firework shells should get the Games off to a bang with the renowned film director Zhang Yimou handed the Herculean task of condensing 5,000 years of Chinese history into one evening.
China wants the Olympics to underscore its new-found strength as the world's fourth largest economy and has spent a record $43 billion (Dh158bn) on preparations, sweeping thousands of people out of their homes to make way for state-of-the art stadiums. The slogan "One World, One Dream" adorns the smog-filled streets of the booming metropolis and the Chinese are glowing with pride as their country takes centre stage after generations of isolation and poverty.
"I hope the Games will change perceptions about China," said Jiang Chaoyi, 23, who studies international trade in Beijing. "We want to show the world why we are different and I hope the opening show has a lot about ancient Chinese culture because that is the root of our difference," he added, walking in to a city centre scrubbed clean for the Games. Specially invited audiences have been given a sneak preview of the pageant, but organisers have let nothing slip about how the Olympic flame will be lit.
Like much of the Olympics, the opening ceremony has been ensnared in politics with the Hollywood director Steven Spielberg quitting as an adviser earlier this year to protest at China's close ties with Sudan and failure to halt killings in Darfur. And the Olympic torch, criss-crossing the world as it made its way to the Bird's Nest, was ambushed by protesters denouncing China's suppression of an uprising in Tibet in March and the country's human rights record.
Such protests are highly unlikely today thanks to the tens of thousands of police and soldiers patrolling Beijing. The biggest threat probably comes from the weather. Storms regularly batter the Chinese capital in August and a downpour could wreak havoc in the open-air stadium but will not spoil the planned firework's display, experts say. Leaving nothing to chance, the ceremony will start at eight o'clock on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008. Eight is a lucky number in China.
The sporting action gets into top gear tomorrow with competition underway in 18 disciplines, including swimming and gymnastics, and seven gold medals up for grabs. This burst of action means many of the 10,500 competitors may decide to skip the traditional athletes' parade at the opening ceremony to make sure they are on form for their events. * Reuters