First the fireworks, then the Games

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A record 205 countries will take part in the opening ceremony to the Beijing Olympics when it takes place at 8pm local time today (1pm BST).

The organisers are confident it will be a spectacular curtain-raiser to what will be judged one of the great Olympic Games.

Competition in 16 of the 28 sports begins tomorrow. Players in the football tournament, which is already under way, will also take to the field. Seven golds will be available on day one of the Games and Britain may even win its first of the competition through judo player Craig Fallon.

There are nearly 11,000 athletes competing for more than 1,000 medals in 302 events. China is fielding its biggest ever Olympic team with 639 athletes competing in all 28 sports for the first time, in a bid to top the medals table.

There has been growing concern about the poor quality of the air in Beijing but the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, declared yesterday that athletes would not be at risk.

China has spent £22bn on hosting the Olympic Games – three times more than Greece did in Athens four years ago – and when the opening ceremony is staged no expense will be spared. Details of the event remain secret, but it will feature 15,000 performers and 29,000 fireworks.

Under the guidance of the film director Zhang Yimou, the three-hour ceremony will begin at 8pm on the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008 – eight is a lucky number here.

It will end with the lighting of the Olympic flame, though nobody knows how that will be done.

There is no sign of a cauldron on the steel structures of the iconic "Bird's Nest" Stadium, the focal point of the dazzling array of new facilities that have been built here.

Despite worldwide protests over China hosting the Games because of its human rights record, about 80 heads of state, including George Bush, Vladimir Putin and Nicolas Sarkozy, will join 91,000 spectators at the ceremony.

With Gordon Brown flying in for the closing ceremony, the British Government will be represented today by Tessa Jowell, the 2012 Olympics Minister.

The order of countries in the parade will be dictated by Chinese characters rather than European alphabets. Attempts to persuade South and North Korea to march as one, as they did in 2000 and 2004, have failed because the two governments were unable to reach agreement.

Security will be intense and the weather is likely to be the biggest threat to the smooth running of the opening ceremony.

The last week has been dominated by concerns over the smog that continued to hang over the city yesterday, but the problem could now be rain, which is forecast to be falling for the next few days.

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