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Culture

Ceremony Dazzles and Settles Nerves

Spectators at the opening ceremonies joined the rest of the world in breathing a collective sigh of relief Friday evening. After years of construction delays and bad press, a spectacular ceremony opened the Olympics.

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Ludger Beerbaum was the first German in the Olympic stadium

For Christos Kyriazis, there seems to be nothing more emotional than seeing the Games return to his homeland. "I have waited 31 years for this moment," he said outside the stadium after witnessing the opening ceremony some never thought would take place. "I cried when the Greeks were awarded the Games on Sept 3, 1997 and I cried again tonight."

The tens of thousands of Greeks who joined him in the stadium on Friday couldn't have agreed more. Greek skepticism greeted the Games almost from the day they were awarded Athens by the International Olympic Committee in 1997. Locals feared chaotic construction and costs that would put the country into massive debt. As construction delays and a spiraling price tag threatened Athens' chance at hosting the Games, the rest of the world started worrying as well.

Eröffnungszeremonie der Olympischen Spiele 2004

Spectators were treated to a three-hour show

The more than three-hour long opening ceremony last night seemed to pacify all but the most devoted critics. The Greeks themselves poked fun at their own glacial building pace, as a troupe of construction workers hammered down the last bits of floor in the Olympic Stadium before declaring the building done just half an hour before the opening ceremonies. The noted Greek choreographer Dimitris Papanionnou created a ceremony that displayed the mix of ancient and modern that Athens hopes will be these Games' signature.

"For every country it means a lot to host the Games," said John Chararitsides, who watched the ceremonies with his wife. "But for us it's special, because they have come back to their home."

Under the motto "Welcome Home," which has been plastered across tens of thousands of square meters of colorful fabric shrouding Athens during the Olympics, Athens Organizing Committee Host Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, IOC President Jacques Rogge and a host of dignitaries including German President Horst Kohler welcomed the athletes from the 202 countries competing in this year's Olympics into the stadium.

Hallo Mama, ich bin im Fernsehn!

Athletes love the parade of nations

Loud cheers greeted the teams of Afghanistan and Iraq, competing for the first time in years after the IOC lifted the ban in place on the team while Saddam Hussein was in power. As the list of countries wound on, spectators entertained themselves by doing the wave and ringing the bells handed out to them as they entered the stadium, a key part of any Greek celebration.

The squad from Portugal -- the country that Greece beat in July to become European Soccer Champions -- got a warm welcome from Greek fans, who exchanged soccer chants with the Olympians making their way around the track.

The biggest cheers of course, were left for the Greek athletes, who entered the stadium last. The entire Greek team, including functionaries and coaches, seemed to be on display, stretching almost the entire length of the Olympic track as they walked around. The thousands of volunteers helping spectators to their seats and keeping an eye on proceedings momentarily forgot their duties to cheer and cry as the Greeks entered.

"The Greeks didn't like the Olympics even two months ago," said Kyriazis. "Now, all of them like it."

Eröffnungszeremonie der Olympischen Spiele 2004

The Olympic rings played a big part in the ceremony

The culmination of the ceremonies, the lighting of the Olympic flame by 1996 Greek gold medalist sailor Nikolaos Kakalamanakis, temporarily hushed the 70,000 spectators as the flame disappeared in the giant torch at the West end of the stadium that had mechanically bent down to receive the flame. When the top of the torch -- which likens a massive cigarette -- finally erupted in a ball of flame, the stadium did as well.

"If I had headed the organizing committee, I would have been depressed a few months ago," said Erik Ruts, visiting from Amsterdam, Holland. "My compliments. If the weather stays like this, it will be a very good Games."