Scores of world leaders were on hand, and the potential TV audience was 4 billion worldwide for what was certainly the costliest and probably the largest opening ceremony in Olympic history.
The centerpiece was the parade of athletes, climaxing with the entry of the 639-strong Chinese team. Its flag-bearer was basketball idol Yao Ming, accompanied by 9-year-old schoolboy Lin Hao, a survivor of May's devastating earthquake in Sichuan province.
A chanting, flag-waving crowd gave a thunderous welcome, and erupted again a few moments later when President Hu Jintao declared the games open.
President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among the glittering roster of notables who endured heat and humidity to watch China make this bold declaration that it had arrived. Bush, rebuked by China after he raised human-rights concerns this week, is the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.
Already an economic powerhouse, China is given a good chance of overtaking the U.S. atop the gold-medal standings with its legions of athletes trained intensely since childhood. One dramatic showdown will be in women's gymnastics, where the U.S. and Chinese teams are co-favorites; in the pool, Chinese divers and U.S. swimmers are expected to dominate.
The run-up to the games had powerful story lines - China investing $40 billion to build Olympic infrastructure, reeling from the Sichuan earthquake, struggling right through Friday to diminish the stubborn smog that enveloped the stadium, known as the Bird's Nest. 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 - fueled persistent criticisms from human rights groups and calls for an Olympic boycott.
Second-guessed for awarding the games to Beijing seven years ago, 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.
"For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games," IOC president Jacques Rogge said in his speech. "Tonight, that dream comes true."
Rogge mentioned the earthquake, saying the world was moved "by the great courage and solidarity of the Chinese people." And he exhorted the assembled athletes, as role models for the world's youth, to "reject doping and cheating."
The story presented in Friday'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. Roughly 15,000 people were in the cast and crew, all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films often ran afoul of government censors for their blunt portrayals of China's problems.
He produced some majestic and ethereal imagery. At the start, 2,008 drummers beat out a pulsating rhythm with their hands. Later, 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."
It ended sensationally, when China's first Olympic superstar, former triple gymnastics gold medalist Li Ning, was hoisted by wires to the top of the stadium, circled the circumference as though he were spacewalking and then touched the torch to a thin pipe, setting off a spiral of flame to ignite the mammoth, scroll-shaped cauldron overlooking Beijing.
Li, now 44, whose six medals total at Los Angeles in 1984 signaled China's intention to be a sports powerhouse, admitted to being nervous about "the best memory of my life."
"This is a glorious but also huge task for anyone," he said. "I should never let the dream of all the Chinese people down. That was why I was nervous."
Li had trained for his part for a month. "The biggest problem is the wind," he said. "Every time I must balance myself in the air and hold the torch as close to the cauldron gas outlet. But every time the wind blew in different directions."