Children’s voices intertwining from the four corners of Britain and a historical pageant of meadows and smokestacks set the 2012 London Olympics rolling on Friday in a ceremony designed to highlight the grandeur and eccentricities of the nation that invented modern sport.
A heavy rain shower threatened to dampen proceedings but cleared just minutes before a spectacle being watched by an audience of 60,000 in the Olympic Stadium and a probable billion television viewers around the globe.
Many of them gasped at the sight of Britain’s 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth, celebrating her Diamond Jubilee this year, briefly putting aside royal reserve in a video where she stepped onto a helicopter with James Bond actor Daniel Craig.
A film clip showed doubles of her and Bond skydiving towards the stadium and, moments later, she made her entrance in person.
In his final news conference before the Games, International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge paid tribute to the host nation.
"Great Britain was the cradle of modern sport," Rogge said. "You invented modern sport in the second half of the 19th century."
To underline the point, Bradley Wiggins, newly crowned as Britain’s first winner of the Tour de France and hoping to add more road cycling gold in London, tolled the world’s largest tuned bell to signal the start of the ceremony.
More than 10,000 athletes from 204 countries will compete in 26 sports over 17 days of competition in the only city to have staged the modern Games three times.
Rogge, the most important man in world sport, said even he had no idea who would light the Olympic cauldron at the end of an extravaganza choreographed by Oscar-winning film director Danny Boyle.
"This is one of the best-kept secrets and we have an arrangement with the organising committee," he said. "We need not know, because the more people know, the bigger the danger of a leak."
At a reception on Friday, Queen Elizabeth spelled out the role played by the British royal family after the Olympics were revived in Athens in 1896.
"This will be the third London Olympiad. My great grandfather opened the 1908 Games at White City. My father opened the 1948 Games at Wembley Stadium. And, later this evening, I will take pleasure in declaring open the 2012 London Olympic Games at Stratford in the east of London," she said.
"Over recent months, many in these islands have watched with growing excitement the journey of the Olympic torch around the United Kingdom. As the torch has passed through villages and towns, it has drawn people together as families and communities.
"To me, this spirit of togetherness is a most important part of the Olympic ideal. And the British people can be proud of the part they have played in keeping the spirit alive."
The opening show, costing an estimated 27 million pounds ($42 million), is inspired by William Shakespeare’s play "The Tempest", his late-life meditation on age and mortality.
The sound and images of children’s choirs singing in the landscapes of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were beamed into the stadium’s giant screens, four different songs woven together into a musical tapestry of Britain.
The ceremony’s snapshot of British history started with a depiction of the pastoral idyll mythologised by the romantic poet William Blake as "England’s green and pleasant land", degenerating with the Industrial Revolution into "dark Satanic mills".
One of the most spectacular moments brought the audience to a hush. Five giant, incandescent, interlocking Olympic rings, symbolically forged in those steel mills, were lifted out of the stadium by weather balloons, headed for the stratosphere.
Many sequences turned the entire stadium into a vast video screen made up of tens of thousands of "pixels" attached to spectators’ seats. One giant message, in tribute to Tim Berners-Lee, British inventor of the world wide web, read "This is for Everyone".
The performance included surreal and often humorous references to British achievements, especially in social reform and the arts, and was due to conclude with a performance by former Beatle Paul McCartney.
Until the past few days, media coverage has been dominated by security firm G4S’s admission that it could not provide enough guards for Olympic venues. Thousands of extra soldiers had to be deployed at the last minute, despite the company’s multi-million-dollar contract from the government.
Counter-terrorism chiefs have played down fears of a major attack on the Games, and Prime Minister David Cameron said that a safe and secure Olympics was his priority.
"This is the biggest security operation in our peacetime history, bar none, and we are leaving nothing to chance."
Suicide attacks on London on July 7, 2005, the day after London was awarded the Games, killed 52 people. This year the Games will mark the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Munich massacre, when 11 Israeli Olympic team members were killed by Palestinian militants.
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Although no medals will be awarded until Saturday, the women’s soccer tournament started on Wednesday, and on Friday South Korean archers set the first world records of the Games.
Their three-man team totalled 2,087 points at Lord’s Cricket Ground as Im Dong-hyun, who suffers from severe myopia and just aims at "a blob of yellow colour", broke his own 72-arrow world record with a score of 699 out of a possible 720.
The Games’ first medals will be decided in the women’s 10 metres air rifle final on Saturday, with the big action coming in the men’s road race where world champion Mark Cavendish is favourite to become Britain’s first gold medallist.
In the evening, Americans Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte are scheduled to line up for a classic confrontation in the men’s 400 metres individual medley final.
Phelps, competing in seven events after winning a record eight gold medals four years ago in Beijing, is bidding to become the first swimmer to win gold in the same discipline three times in a row.
"This is going to be a special race," said Gregg Troy, head coach of the American men’s team. "I can’t imagine a better way to promote our sport than a race like this on the first day."