The rumble began slowly, softly, as the 2,008 drummers in silvery robes each worked their hands on the bronze surface of a Fou, the oldest Chinese percussion instrument.
And then the noise increased, rattling the Olympic National Stadium, waves of sound soon punctuated by fireworks as the lights on the surfaces of the drums and the rhythmic movements of the percussionists turned the countdown to Friday’s start of the 2008 Olympics’ opening ceremony into a blend of technology and tradition.
The striking sound and flashing lights were a fanfare for not only the Olympians who would later parade across the floor of the stadium known as the Bird’s Nest. It announced to the world that China and its 1.3 billion citizens were marching boldly into the 21st century.
The Games hold such cachet in China that hosting them for the first time is a symbol of the country’s power and place in the world.
Nothing said that more dramatically than the ceremony’s final moment, when 1984 Olympic champion gymnast Li Ning lighted the caldron that will burn over the stadium for the next 16 days. Li, 45, was carried about 225 feet to the roof level on a harness and then mimicked walking as he followed the approximately 800-yard circumference of the upper level before touching his torch to a pipe that fed the caldron.
“Hosting the Olympic Games has been a century-old dream for the Chinese nation,” said Liu Qi, president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee.
A high-definition scroll opened at the center of the stadium floor, another use of modern wizardry to illustrate classic elements of China. Athletes for the 204 nations -- an expected 205th, Brunei, was excluded at the last minute because it had not sent athletes -- walked through paint before stepping across the vinyl scroll, leaving footprints to mark their passage.
The production mixed power, impact and a huge cast flawlessly performing formation choreography in what looked like the largest Busby Berkeley spectacular ever.
“One section required that over 600 performers should have uniform expression in their eyes, so they must have exquisite feelings, and they have to work very hard,” said Wang Hong, manager of a cultural troupe in the People’s Liberation Army.
Nine thousand of the 14,000 performers were PLA soldiers, who had endured some rehearsals that lasted 48 hours.
As day turned to twilight, the sky changing from light gray to gun-metal gray as the grimy air filled with humidity, 91,000 spectators began enduring six sweaty hours of pre-ceremony and ceremony.
For all its grandiosity, there was a muted, monotonal quality about much of the cultural exposition that reached a dramatic climax with 2,008 white-clad martial arts performers, bursts of fireworks and acrobats dangling from ropes at roof level.
And then came the lengthy parade of athletes, punctuated by roars for Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong and an extended ovation for China’s team.
The Chinese, marching in last, put a final humanizing touch on the procession by having NBA center Yao Ming carry the flag alongside 9-year-old Lin Hao, a survivor of the May 12 earthquake in Sichuan that killed about 70,000 people.
By the time Li lighted the caldron, many of the athletes had been standing three hours in outfits that included dark suits and heavy traditional costumes. About a third chose to skip the ceremony rather than drain themselves before competing.
Other NBA players, cheered when their faces appeared on the video screens, carried the flags for several delegations, including Germany (Dirk Nowitzki), Argentina (Manu Ginobili) and Russia (Andrei Kirilenko). Tennis champion Roger Federer did the honors for Switzerland. Natalie Du Toit, a swimmer who will compete in both the Olympics and the Paralympics, was South Africa’s flag-bearer.
“It’s Women’s Day tomorrow around the world, so they wanted a woman,” Du Toit said.
Nearly a third of the flag-bearers were track and field athletes, including Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong, a middle-distance runner who carried the U.S. flag a year after becoming a naturalized citizen.
NBA star LeBron James brought up the rear of the 596-athlete U.S. delegation, second in size to China’s 639. When President Bush’s face appeared on the video screen, the reaction was mainly a murmur with a few derisive whistles.
The unruly Spanish delegation briefly brought the parade to a halt by hamming for the cameras, stretching themselves around half of the track.
The two Koreas did not form a unified delegation, as they had in the 2000 Sydney Games and the 2004 Athens Games. Three nations separated the North from the South.
“The National Olympic Committees were in agreement, but the political powers were not,” said Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee. “This is a setback for harmony, peace and reunification.”
As Li looped the stadium as the ultimate acrobat, he closed a circle that had begun with China’s return to the Olympics in 1984 at Los Angeles, where he was one of the athletes who brought home the nation’s first Olympic gold medals.
Philip Hersh covers Olympic sports for The Times and the Chicago Tribune.