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Stunning ceremony welcomes Games

The eyes of the world gazed in awe on Beijing as a stunning opening extravaganza heralded the start of the Olympic Games.

Many of the world's heads of state were in the Bird's Nest stadium for a visual spectacular that was staggering in its sheer scale and imagination.

A total of 14,000 performers took part in front of 91,000 spectators and a potential TV audience of billions, and it must have been a hugely daunting sight for the observers from the London 2012 organising committee.

It was the biggest and mostly costly opening ceremony in the history of the Games, and is unlikely to ever be matched. London 2012 officials have already admitted they will not be able to commit anything like the same resources to the event in 2012.

The official opening was carried out by Hu Jintao, president of the People's Republic of China, at the end of a ceremony that lasted three and a half hours.

In his speech at the end of the ceremony, Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, said: "For a long time, China has dreamed of opening its doors and inviting the world's athletes to Beijing for the Olympic Games.

"Tonight that dream comes true.

"Beijing, you are a host to the present and a gateway to the future. Thank you!"

Rogge also called on the athletes to embrace fair play.

He added: "Please compete in the spirit of Olympic values: excellence, friendship and respect. Dear athletes, remember that you are role models for the youth of the world. Reject doping and cheating.

"Make us proud of your achievements and your conduct."

A blast of fireworks began the ceremony, followed by 2,008 drummers playing a fou - a Chinese percussion instrument - in perfect unison.

The spectacular continued with 29 giant firework 'footprints' - representing the number of modern Olympic Games - from the centre of Beijing to the stadium.

A fantastic light-show followed, with giant illuminated Olympic rings being raised up from the floor of the stadium and then a series of visually stunning acrobatic, artistic and aerobatic displays.

The climax was a three-minute long display involving 30,000 fireworks that almost defied imagination.

American president George Bush, Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, and France president Nicolas Sarkozy were among the dignitaries while Britain was represented by Olympics minister Tessa Jowell - Gordon Brown is coming to the closing ceremony.

The Chinese authorities imposed the strictest of security precautions and deployed an extra 100,000 soldiers and police on the streets.

After a build-up dominated by pollution worries, and the occasional protest by human rights campaigners, organisers were relieved to get the ceremony underway.

Some measures of pollution had the level of particulates at almost four times the World Health Organisation recommended level, and visibility in the Chinese capital was as poor as it has been for a fortnight.

The threat of rain receded however, despite some gloomy forecasts.

Beijing's international airport was closed for the duration of the ceremony, and a no-fly zone imposed in the air above the city.

The Bird's Nest stadium was protected by rows of tall fences, surveillance cameras and anti-aircraft missile batteries.

Swimmer Mark Foster carried the flag for the Great Britain team, who were cheered on their arrival into the stadium, and tennis players Andy and Jamie Murray were among those that took part in the march-past.

Roger Federer was Switzerland's flag-bearer while the USA's choice was Sudan-born 1500 metre runner Lopez Lomong, a refugee from the Darfur conflict.

That was potentially embarrassing for the hosts given that China has close ties with Sudan, but the USA team still received a warm welcome, as did Iraq's small team.

The biggest cheer, naturally, was reserved for the entrance of the Chinese team, led by their giant basketball superstar Yao Ming, who play for Houston Rockets in the NBA.