BEIJING - China didn't just walk onto the world stage. It soared over it.
At last playing its long-sought role as Olympic host, China opened the Summer Games in spectacular fashion Friday with an extravaganza of fireworks and pageantry dramatizing its ascendance as a global power.
Disasters, environmental problems and human-rights disputes preceded the games, and questions abound about how they will unfold. But for an evening, at least for the 91,000 people packed into the new National Stadium, it was an interlude of fervor and magic - capped by the spellbinding sight of a skywalking, torchbearing gymnast floating around the stadium's top rim before sending a torrent of fire upward to light the Olympic flame.
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.