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Olympics begins in pomp and splendour

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The Beijing 2008 Olympic Games have opened with a lavish and colourful ceremony in front of a packed stadium.

This content was published on August 8, 2008 - 18:16

Tennis star Roger Federer led the Swiss team into the arena, following an hour-long spectacle that celebrated 5,000 years of Chinese history with drummers, dancers and fireworks.

The festivities started punctually at eight minutes past eight, on August 8 – the number is believed to be lucky in China.

Around 80 world leaders, including United States President Bush, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and the Swiss President, Pascal Couchepin, joined around 90,000 spectators to watch the ceremony.

Bush, rebuked by China after he raised human rights concerns this week, is the first US president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.

The new stadium, known as the "Bird's Nest" was designed by the star Swiss architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron.

Firecrackers rippled around the rim of the arena, thousands of blue, green and red strobe lights flickered and drummers chanted as the ceremony got off to an explosive start.

Around 10,000 performers took part in the opening event, with the global television audience estimated at up to four billion.

Federer's pride

The Swiss team, attired in a somewhat casual red-and-white shorts and t-shirt ensemble, was led in by Federer, one of the main national medal hopes.

The Swiss tennis player, who has endured a tough year which will culminate in him losing his top ranking to Spaniard Rafael Nadal later this month, looked visibly proud as he carried the Swiss flag.

It was a particularly special day for him, as he was also celebrating his 27th birthday.

Once all the record 204 national delegations had processed into the stadium, Chinese President Hu Jintao officially declared the Summer Games open. The Olympic flame was then lit in the arena, where it will stay burning until the games end on August 24.

Friday's opening display caps seven years of work that reshaped the capital Beijing and sets the seal on an industrial boom that has boosted China's international standing.

Controversies

The Games, which carry a $43 billion (SFr47 billion) price tag, are the most expensive ever held – but are also among the most controversial.

The country has overcome a number of setbacks including a catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province in May. However it was struggling right up until to Friday to diminish Beijing's stubborn smog.

Its detentions of political activists, its crackdown on uprisings in Tibet and its economic ties to Sudan - with its war-torn Darfur region – fuelled relentless criticisms from human rights groups and calls for an Olympic boycott in the run-up to the Games.

However, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) always 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 the world's population.

swissinfo with agencies

2008 Olympic Games

The 2008 Olympic Games will be hosted by China from August 8-24. The Paralympic Games will take place from September 6-17.

The Games will be centred in the Chinese capital, Beijing, with six other venues hosting certain events, including Hong Kong (equestrian) and Shanghai (football).

Some 10,708 athletes will compete in 302 events in 28 different sports. In the Paralympics 4,000 athletes will take part in 471 events encompassing 20 sports.

Participants appear in all shapes, sizes - and ages. The oldest competitor is the 67-year-old Japanese equestrian rider Hiroshi Hoketso; the youngest is Joyce Guedia Mouafo, a swimmer from Cameroon, who is a mere 12.

Eight-four Swiss athletes will be trying to improve on their performance in Athens in 2004, when the Swiss medal haul totalled one gold (fencing), one silver (cycling) and three bronze (cycling, triathlon, volleyball).

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