LONDON (Reuters) - Cramming several thousand years of cultural history into a couple of hours is the truly Olympian challenge faced by Zhang Yimou on Friday.
Zhang, known in the West for his Oscar-nominated movie "House of Flying Daggers," is director of the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony which offers China the chance to show hundreds of millions of television viewers what it has given the world.
"It is do with national pride -- it does become the first gold medal of the Games," Olympic historian Philip Barker told Reuters.
"For every Games, there is that sense that we are presenting the nation to the world and that really has been probably since 1980 when the Games started to become a big television deal."
South Korea, the last Asian country to stage the Summer Games, used the Seoul Olympics to promote its new status as an industrial powerhouse and the opening ceremony highlighted the isolation of its neighbor and rival, North Korea.
Greece used the widely acclaimed ceremony in Athens in 2004 to spell out its huge contribution to Western civilization and implicitly face down critics who said it was too disorganized to stage an event like the Olympics.
The ceremony has also been used as a platform for overt political statements even though the Olympic Charter bans "any kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda ... in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
At the 1936 Games in Nazi Germany, swastika-emblazoned banners obscured the Olympic flag.
During the parade of nations at the start of the 1980 Moscow Games, some countries protesting against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan the previous year carried the Olympic flag in the place of their national flag.
Many Western countries boycotted the Games.
The opening ceremony for the 2000 Games in Sydney was marked by a gesture of national reconciliation when Aboriginal athlete Cathy Freeman, who later won the 400 meters gold medal, lit the Olympic flame.
China's ruling Communist Party has seized on the 2008 Games to show off its development into a modernizing global power.
Artists, technicians and producers have been working on the ceremony for years. Large-scale rehearsals with more than 10,000 performers have been taking place since March.
There is great interest in which world leaders will turn up at the ceremony because rights activists have called for a general boycott to protest against China's civil rights record, especially in Tibet. China's crackdown on Tibet after deadly riots in March sparked worldwide protests.
Historians and commentators say world leaders do not usually attend the Olympics opening ceremony.
"The purpose of hosting the Olympics is to prove to the Chinese people that the rest of the world acknowledges the Chinese Communist Party as legitimate leaders," said David Wallechinsky, author of The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics.
"That is why to see some of the world leaders including President (George W.) Bush and (French President Nicolas) Sarkozy showing up, they are allowing themselves to be, I feel, props in the ... Chinese Communist Party spectacle."
Editing by Robert Woodward and Ralph Gowling