The ceremony is over. Now it's time for sport to take its rightful place
At long last the fireworks switch from the roof of the Bird's Nest down to the track, writes Peter Simpson
To say there was growing anticipation and a sense of impatience for history to unfold was a gold-medal understatement. Long before the spectators, it was the restless international and mainland media who were the first to enter the Bird's Nest, hours before last night's opening ceremony.
They were fast-tracked through security and took their seats to swelter in the heat and haze and reflect on their reams of words and galleries of pictures over the past seven years.
The moment of reckoning was nearly upon them. Had they called it right? Would this be the best Games ever?
At any Olympics, the opening ceremony is part carnival and part tell-tale as to the state of the mind of the athletes for the sports reporters. How and with whom do they walk during the parade? Are they looking confident? Where is so-and-so, and so forth, whirls the mind.
But even the purist hammer-thrower reporter or kayak correspondent could not keep his or her mind on the stats book. So like others, they folded the albums, placed them in the bag and heeded the call of history-in-the-making.
They walked with the other Olympic pilgrims to this inspiring temple to modernity, this key symbol of 21st century China - a stadium that will over the next 16 days be a temporary Mecca to sport fans.
'This Olympics will be different,' most have written. It already is. China has changed, and it will have changed so much more in the eyes of the world after last night's spectacle.
And sport will, too. No matter - even up until the last 24 hours - that China's behemoth sports ministry talked down the expectant medal count for the host nation.
Just as we expected an opening ceremony to knock our socks off, the sporting media is expecting China's chosen 639 to knock the Americans off the podium and change the world order of sport.
Who says a dream cannot be realised? Last night's vision was no figment of the imagination. For China, this had been 100 years in the making to compete with the best.
And this morning, this fantasy is likely to continue with China's first gold medals in shooting and weightlifting - the first of many.
Here at ringside - just hours before the magic zeros and eights flash before the collective eyes of the human race and after 1,000 days of following this blazing trail to the 29th Olympiad - the humidity made it difficult to catch even an anticipatory breath.
The sense of what was about to unfold was tangible and heat could not dampen down the hairs on the neck when it did.
The pre-opening ceremony entertainment - a morsel of what was to come - played out to a near empty stadium. The spectators queued for hours to take their places among the three tiers. Every seat in the Nest offers a bird's-eye view.
At least once before the guests arrive, the nervous debutante and party host takes a look in the mirror and is forced to cut through the jitters and be simply impressed with the efforts they have made.
But China was a knockout the minute she descended the stairs onto the world's stage.
For three hours and more, it was time to forget the haze, the abseiling protesters, athletes wielding poisoned pens, the war on doping, sanctimonious governments and all the other hullabaloo that has dogged these Olympics over the past seven years, as it inevitably does every Games.
Over the next 16 days, the athletes and their superhuman feats will rightfully take the place of the politics.
Yao Ming, Lopez Lomong and all the others will swap their blazers for their national sports kit, and compress years of dedication into tenths of seconds, just as China attempted to put 5,000 years of history into one gala performance.
There will be more data than drummers at the opening ceremony. But there were two glaring omissions from the 'Fact's About the Opening Ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympics' handed out by the volunteers when we took our seat next to a great sporting moment.
'15,153 different types of costume,' it noted, and '16 performers hurt in just one incident' during the '13 months of rehearsals'. Missing was '91,000 human-sized fridges to keep the spectators from melting in the crushing humidity'.
Nor was there any mention of the '1.3 billion Chinese feeling proud'.
Chinese hearts bursting with pride last night: 1.3bn