The world’s spotlight turned to London’s Olympic Stadium on Friday where the opening ceremony kick started the 2012 Games with an eccentric and exuberant celebration of British history, art and culture.
Among the 60,000-strong audience watching the event, which kicked off at 2000 GMT, were celebrities, ordinary Londoners, dignitaries including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama as well as presidents, prime ministers and European royalty.
More than a billion more people around the world watched the official start to 17 days of drama when more than 16,000 athletes from 204 countries will contest sport's ultimate prize -- Olympic gold.
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth arrived at the opening ceremony of the Olympics in spectacular style, greeted by a huge roar from the crowd as she appeared in the stadium to help officially open the London Games.
Minutes earlier the 86-year-old monarch appeared in her first film role on big screens with the James Bond actor Daniel Craig at Buckingham Palace, her London residence.
In the film, the two were seen entering a helicopter which swept off over the capital. Minutes later a helicopter appeared above the stadium and released two people who parachuted just past the stadium.
The Queen then walked into the opening ceremony in east London, before the 60,000 strong audience, and before a choir sang the national anthem.
Britain’s Queen is enjoying her highest level of public popularity in 20 years following the celebration of her Diamond Jubilee this year and the royal family is expected to take a high-profile role during the Games.
Hours earlier, huge crowds flocked to the state-of-the-art arena in the Olympic Park, a sprawling network of sporting venues, athletes’ accommodation, media centers and restaurants built in a previously run-down area of London's East End.
“The atmosphere is amazing,” said Rebecca Simpson, a 21-year-old dancer due to take part in the ceremony. “The crowd is buzzing and it’s amazing to be a part of something so big. I’m really nervous but nervous-excited.”
An effusive London Mayor Boris Johnson was typically flamboyant in his attempt to sum up the mood.
“The excitement is growing so much I think the Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale,” he told crowds in London's Hyde Park earlier Friday.
Isle of Wonder
Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle has masterminded the show, which is costing 27 million pounds ($42 million) to stage, less than half the cost of the Beijing extravaganza, and will last nearly four hours.
Entering the stadium, the flood of spectators saw the opening set, a recreation of a British pastoral idyll complete with grassy meadows, fences, hedges, shepherdesses and live animals including sheep, geese and dogs.
At one end of the stadium stood a grassy knoll topped by a tree and at the other a giant bell that will ring out. In front of each is a “mosh pit” of people conjuring the spirit of the Glastonbury music festival and Last Night of the Proms classical concert.
Boyle’s colorful and sometimes chaotic vision aimed to create a kaleidoscope of what it means to be British, an approach that could appeal to the home audience but leave many foreign viewers scratching their heads at times.
Some visitors from overseas, however, were confident that he would strike the right tone at a Games where the motto is Inspire a Generation.
“I have always wanted to go to the Olympic Games, and since it’s in England I thought it's now or never,” said Sigbritt Larsson, a 68-year-old from Sweden who paid 150 pounds ($240) for a ticket.
“I think it’s going to be terrific because the English are so clever, you know the humor,” she added. “I heard on the radio that the theme is generosity which is fantastic.”
Boyle has been at pains to encourage 10,000 volunteers taking part in the show and tens of thousands more who attended rehearsals this week to keep its content a surprise.
That has not prevented details being leaked through Twitter, Facebook and the mainstream media.
Entitled “Isle of Wonder” and inspired by Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” the show took viewers on a journey from what poet William Blake famously called “England’s green and pleasant land” to the “dark Satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution.
Divided into three main sections, it celebrated the National Health Service, cherished by Britons despite being a political hot potato at a time when austerity measures have forced major spending cuts.
Spectators were urged to join in traditional sing-a-longs, beloved by East End pub-drinkers, and help to create spectacular visual effects at an event that sets the tone for the sporting spectacle.
Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney was among the many performers on the night.
Radical Muslims plan protests
Meanwhile, a group of British Islamists earlier said they had received permission to stage a protest on Friday outside the London Olympic Park to denounce what they called the evil of the Games.
The group, led by some of Britain’s most prominent Islamist figures, said they would gather outside the gates to the park in Stratford before the opening ceremony to condemn Britain and other countries they accuse of persecuting Muslims.
They aim to attract the attention of 60,000 spectators due to attend the ceremony in the main Olympic stadium.
The group has set up a website, evilolympics.com, which has the tagline “While the world plays, Muslims are being killed around the globe.”
“It will be one of the biggest demonstrations that the Muslim community has put on in the UK,” said organizer Mizanur Rahman said, estimating that “easily hundreds” would attend.
Rahman served a four-year jail term for encouraging followers to kill British and American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq during a protest in 2006.
Rahman said they had been given permission by police to stage Friday’s protest and added it would not be their last during the Games.
Rahman said the decision of judo chiefs not to allow a Saudi athlete to compete wearing an Islamic headscarf showed why Muslims should boycott the Olympics, which this year coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
“I would hope that this would be a sign they should not be in the Games,” said Rahman.