BEIJING (Reuters) - Swimmer Michael Phelps plunges into his quest for an unprecedented eight golds on Saturday after China dazzled the world at the Olympics’ opening ceremony.
With competition starting in 18 sports, seven gold medals are up for grabs on the first full sporting day of the Games after a run-up dominated by political criticism of China.
Hoping to overtake the United States after its second place finish in the 2004 Athens medal table, China had a great chance of winning the first gold with Du Li in the 10-metre air rifle.
Doping again reared its head when Greek media reported on Friday that sprinter Tassos Gousis had failed a test days before he was due to compete in Beijing. Olympic authorities have been urging international federations to stamp out cheats.
But most attention is on 23-year-old Phelps who will try out Beijing’s shimmering new Water Cube aquatics centre for his heat in the 400 meters individual medley: the first of 17 starts in nine days as he tries to better Mark Spitz’s seven golds in 1972.
That would make him the most titled Olympian in history.
“I‘m here having fun,” said Phelps, who lowered the 400 meters medley world record for the seventh time in June but had fellow American Ryan Lochte less than a second behind.
China opened the Olympics on Friday night with a glittering ceremony that celebrated its ancient history but also demonstrated its modern image and emerging superpower status.
Riding an economic boom, the Communist government of the world’s most populous nation has spent $43 billion on the Games.
About 80 world leaders, including President George W. Bush whose fellow Americans are increasingly nervous of China’s global clout, joined 91,000 spectators in the spectacular Bird’s Nest stadium for an opening show of fireworks, drums and dance.
“Friends have come from afar, how happy we are!” the performers chanted in a Confucian saying. Euphoric crowds carried on partying through the night after the ceremony.
As well as drawing admiration, however, the Games have been a catalyst for China’s critics around the world and have demonstrated the government’s intolerance for dissent.
Despite a 100,000-strong force of troops and police in Beijing, small groups of foreign protesters have shouted or unveiled banners in the street this week about Tibet, abortion and religious freedom.
Three demonstrators who unfurled a Tibetan flag by the Bird’s Nest on Friday night were detained within seconds by police.
Chinese rule in the Himalayan region has been the most contentious issue for Beijing before the Olympics.
There was no Olympics joy either for internal critics.
Many dissidents were under house arrest, while others had fled to distant provinces or been taken on enforced “holidays” by state security minders, human rights groups and activists said.
Beijing hopes the world will now focus on sport.
The capital’s smog remains of deep concern for athletes. Skies have been hazy with pollution all week despite China implementing a $18 billion clean-up before the Games.
Boxing is also due to start on Saturday. Traditional power Cuba, who won five golds in Athens 2004, have been weakened by a string of defections of top fighters and face a stiff field.
Head coach Pedro Roque was confident though: “We have enough boxers for one, two or three teams.”
Cyclists will be the first endurance athletes to test the impact of Beijing’s pollution and heat in the men’s road race winding from the ancient Forbidden City to the hilly Great Wall.
“This is the toughest course I have ever seen at a tournament event,” said Netherlands coach Egon Kessel.
All eyes on the judo mat will focus on Japan’s Ryoko Tani: the celebrity and super-mum wants a third straight Olympics gold.
Though centered in Beijing, the Games will stretch more than 2,000 km, with equestrian events in Hong Kong, soccer dotted around China and yachting in the eastern city of Qingdao.
Record crowds are sure to cheer on the athletes, with 7 million tickets sold guaranteeing capacity audiences -- a stark contrast to Athens when some sports played out to empty stands.
Excitement and nationalism have reached fever pitch, while visitors to China have been lavished with smiles, presents and attention on literally every street corner.
(Reporting by Beijing Olympic bureau, editing by Ralph Gowling)