BEIJING The opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics will get the Summer Games -- billed as the greatest show on earth -- off to an explosive start on Friday.
You should not expect anything less from the nation that invented gunpowder, and fireworks are certain to play a major role in the 3- hour spectacular that China hopes will help dispel political controversies dogging the Games.
Beijing's new national stadium, the steel-latticed "Bird's Nest", will host the lavish opening ceremony that will draw on about 10,000 performers and could net a global television audience of more than 4 billion viewers.
It will be the most expensive show in Olympic history, with media speculating that as much as $100 million has been earmarked for the opening and closing ceremonies -- more than twice that spent on the acclaimed 2004 Athens pageant.
The world got a tantalising glimpse of what is in store when a South Korean television crew slipped past the security cordon last week to film a secret dress rehearsal.
The footage, flashed over the Internet, showed aerial artists floating over the track, mass kung-fu formations and replica humpbacked whales cavorting round the stadium.
A second dress rehearsal was held on Saturday, with fireworks from the stadium lighting up the Beijing skyline and some 90,000 Olympic workers and their families and friends invited to watch. A final run through is scheduled for mid-week.
"The ceremony will be astonishing and magnificent," said Frenchman Yves Pepin, an events expert who helped Chinese director Zhang Yimou devise the show and whose contract forbids him from revealing any details of the content.
"This will be a way for China to show the world what it is capable of," he told Reuters. "I think it is going to be the biggest show of its type ever seen."
The Games underline China's ascent from poverty and isolation to a place at the summit of the global community. It now has the world's fourth-largest economy.
But like much of the Olympics, the ceremony has been enmeshed in politics, with Hollywood director Steven Spielberg quitting as an adviser earlier this year to protest at China's close ties with Sudan.
Then world leaders got into the act, debating whether to skip the ceremony to protest over China's human rights record.
In the event, U.S. President George W. Bush announced he would attend, as well as a batch of other top names including French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Zhang and his army of workers hope that for 210 minutes the world will just focus on the fun.
"The ceremony won't make people forget all the controversies, but they might put them aside for just 3- hours," said Pepin, who masterminded the opening of the 1998 soccer World Cup in France.
Zhang, who directed films like "Raise the Red Lantern" and "House of Flying Daggers", has spent three years working on the production, looking to condense 5,000 years of Chinese history into a 50-minute segment which will be slotted into the show.
"Some previous ceremonies have been truly extraordinary and I have no doubt that the Chinese will match that, at least, if not take it on to another plane," said British events producer Harvey Goldsmith, who organised the 2005 Live 8 concerts.
"But frankly these things go on for too long and it is getting increasingly hard to wow people," he told Reuters.
All the hard work and money could yet be wasted if one of Beijing's notorious summer storms strikes when the curtain goes up -- especially since original plans to put a roof on the stadium were abandoned in an effort to curb costs.
Leaving nothing to chance, the ceremony will kick off at 8 minutes past 8 p.m. on the 8th month of 2008. Eight is a lucky number in China and in a year marked by the deadly earthquake in Sichuan province a bit of luck would be welcome.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)