By JOHN LEICESTER
AP Olympics Columnist
BEIJING -- Bubbling with pent-up anticipation, the huge crowd counted down the last five seconds to China's biggest moment on the world stage: "Wu! Si! San! Er! Yi!"
Then, crack! Fireworks kicked off the stun-and-awe globally televised extravaganza, opening the Beijing Olympics and giving China's Communist Party the type of feel-good publicity only the Summer Games -- and $40 billion in Olympics-related investments -- can bring.
Wow, the world's most populous nation gave us quite a show, stunning at times, if also a little frightening and overdone in its size, grandeur and naked ambition. With no public dissent allowed of the mounds of money that have been poured into these games, the government stamped an indelible and very expensive mark on Olympic history.
The amassed VIPs -- never have so many foreign leaders gathered here or at any single Olympics -- were a pat on the back for China in response. They dared not rain on China's party by staying away. But nor did leaders like President George W. Bush want to look like vassals coming to pay tribute at the Chinese court. He conditioned his attendance with swipes at China's human rights record. China, he said earlier in the day, should "let people say what they think."
But for four hours, those differences were set aside, as China realized a century-old ambition of holding the games.
After such a long wait, it made the most of the spotlight and the television audience of a few billion.
Behind the dancers and the 2,008 pounding drums that tore the air, the opening ceremonies sent this message: We Chinese are an ancient, proud civilization, and our time has come to be fully accepted again into the family of nations.
As the show's theme song said, "You and me, from one world."
In China's case, that has never been truer. As it has moved from revolution to capitalism, the links between this century's new power and the world have become as interwoven and dense -- although not as sturdy -- as the steel girders that form the 91,000-seat "Bird's Nest" National Stadium, which hosted the ceremonies.
Forty years ago, under Chairman Mao Zedong, China still largely shunned the world. But on Friday, some of the biggest cheers erupted when NBA stars Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki -- who will compete here and marched with their countries' squads -- were shown on the stadium's giant screens.
But for all the good will that radiated from the Bird's Nest on this hot and sticky night, old and new rivalries still showed through the careful choreography. The largely Chinese crowd gave a frosty reception to the Japanese team as it marched in. Downtown, on Beijing's biggest shopping mall, there were boos from spectators watching on a giant screen.
Otherwise, there were no apparent glitches. The highlight was the lighting of the stadium's giant Olympic torch by former gymnast Li Ning. The winner of six medals, three gold, at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he is now the mogul of a sportswear company that bears his name. As such, he is a symbol of China's rise as an economic power.
But the show also had authoritarian tinges, and lacked spontaneity at times. Cheerleaders frequently bounded up and down the aisles, telling spectators when to wave their flags and electric sparklers. Security men in dark suits, ear pieces and buzz cuts sat among the crowd, keeping watch.
If it hadn't been for the cheers, it might almost have been possible to hear the Chinese organizers' sighs of relief. The seven years since the hotly contested decision to award the games to Beijing have focused attention on China as never before. The communist government has faced the heat of criticism over its human rights record, its repression of Tibet, its support of the Sudanese regime tied to murder in Darfur.
Now, the focus should shift, although perhaps not fully, to the sports that begin Saturday.
The creative mind behind Friday's show, film director Zhang Yimou, crafted a tapestry that spanned from China's ancient past to its modernizing present. There were astronauts lowered from the skies, seas of performers in suits covered with glittering electric lights.
This was all about portraying a nation growing stronger, with proud roots in history and a shining future, joined in peace with the world.
Wang Yaxiong, 18, who came dressed with a Chinese flag draped over his back and another painted on his forehead, bought into the show's message. Like the Communist Party, he wants the rest of the world to buy into it, too.
"These Olympics are a window on our country," he said. "I hope people will take a fresh look at China."