The Olympic Games returned to its spiritual home on Friday in a breathtaking opening ceremony that brought the myths of Ancient Greece to life through the magic of 21st century technology.
Athens, on the verge of losing the Games four years ago because of chaotic preparations, raised the curtain on the greatest show on earth with an extraordinary flourish before a worldwide television audience of up to four billion people.
For 45 minutes, spectators in the Olympic Stadium sat hushed and open-mouthed as a celebration of life, love and one of the world's greatest civilisations spread out before and above them.
Drums thundering out the sound of a racing heartbeat reverberated under the soaring glass wings of a futuristic oval arena that only months ago had no seats and no roof.
From a centaur striding across the lake with a lance of light to Eros floating high in ethereal majesty, the show presented a living pageant of 3,000
A giant marble head, floating seemingly weightless, peeled apart to reveal an ancient statue and beneath that a man balanced on a cube in mid-air, signifying the birth of logic.
A timeline of athletic development was then portrayed in human friezes whose artistic roots lay in the treasures of Ancient Greece.
In the first Summer Games since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the celebration of sporting prowess was staged under Europe's biggest peacetime security blanket. Guards outnumber athletes by seven to one.
Protected from afar by Patriot missiles, and watched over by airships and helicopters, the ceremony featuring competitors from a record 202 countries offered the world a chance to forget its troubles for three hours.
The security measures were a far cry from the Ancient Games when, throughout Greece, warriors laid down their arms to allow athletes to compete in peace and slaughtered 100 oxen to begin the festivities.
The nation of 10 million, where the modern Olympics were reborn in 1896, was finally enjoying accolades for preparing a safe and efficient Games when the Gods of Olympus struck with a last-minute thunderbolt that shook the whole nation.
Costas Kenteris, who won gold in the 200 metres at the Sydney Games four years ago, and Katerina Thanou, who took silver in the women's 100, face expulsion from the Games and a two-year ban after missing mandatory drug tests on Thursday.
Kenteris had been hot favourite to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony. His fall from grace reduced Greeks to tears and anger in a instance of pure hubris.
Above all it was a night to savour for the 10,500 athletes who came to Athens for the sheer joy of participating in the greatest extravaganza in sport.
The Greek flag-bearer, greeted with tumultuous acclaim, led out the teams headed by the Caribbean island state of Saint Lucia, next in line under the Greek alphabetic spelling.
The small Pacific island nation of Kiribati made its debut and Afghanistan was welcomed back into the Olympic family for the first time since the Sydney Games four years ago.
Some major figures, including American Michael Phelps and Australian Ian Thorpe, both swimmers, stayed away to prepare for the first competitive action on Saturday.
Malaysia boasted the smallest, youngest and lightest flagbearer -- Bryan Nickson Lomas, a 14-year-old diver named after former Manchester United and England captain Bryan Robson.
China, Asia's main medal hope and host of the next Summer Games in 2008, walked taller than anyone behind basketball player Yao Ming. At 2.26 metres he is the tallest athlete ever to compete at a Games.
(Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton and Alan Baldwin)