The worry ceased and the wonder began when a pyrotechnic comet was launched from a video screen. It landed in a shallow manmade lake in the middle of the stadium, where five Olympic rings were ignited and 75,000 people stood in awe.
A centaur waded into the water up to his hoof, thrusting a javelin skyward. A Cycladic head emerged from the bottom of the sea, breaking into eight pieces until it revealed the figure of Kouros, a 6th-century B.C. emperor. Ivory sculptures came to life, posing and running. Even Eros, the ancient god of love, had a cameo.
Greece fused its mythological past with its promising future Friday night in an Opening Ceremonies to the Games of XXVIII Olympiad, which were as ornate and extravagant as they were breathtaking.
Combining myth with music and human majesty, the Athenians and their countrymen used the event to quell the fears of terrorism, cost overruns and unseemly steroid scandals leading up to the Games. They came back to Greece for the first time since 1896, when Athens gave birth to the modern Olympics.
"Greece is standing before you. We are ready. . . . We have waited long for this moment," said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the chief organizer of the Athens Games, as 75,000 applauded. She stood under a replica of an olive tree with Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee. They were ringed by about 10,500 of the world's greatest athletes from 202 nations, the largest parade in Olympic history.
"Hellas! Hellas!" the crowd chanted loudly as the Greek Olympic team marched in last. "Greece! Greece!"
Amid the backdrop of terrorism concerns, an American doping scandal and a frantic rally by the host country to finish preparations before Friday night, Greece managed to seize its moment on the world stage and pull off a majestic, if slightly drawn out, first evening of the Games.
Gone, for the moment, were the long-term national implications of having to commit $1.5 billion to post-9/11 security. The total cost of putting on the Games -- $7.2 billion, $2 billion more than Greek Olympic officials had hoped to spend -- was also forgotten temporarily.
The steroid controversy plaguing the Olympics was moved aside for much of the night, although Rogge, during his speech, asked the athletes to "give us reasons to believe in sport that is increasingly credible and pure, by refusing doping and respecting fair play."
The long parade of nations siphoned drama from some of the evening. The U.S. team entered in its navy berets to the same applause reserved for most nations. Marching in tight rows of eight -- the U.S. Olympic Committee doled out behavioral tips to prevent any repeat American jingoism from past Opening Ceremonies -- the athletes walked into the stadium's center without incident.
Afghanistan also drew cheers after the nation returned to Olympic competition -- fielding a team that includes its first female athletes -- after an eight-year absence from the Games.
In their second show of solidarity at the Games, South and North Korea marched together under one flag -- an act belying their governments' longstanding differences and contentious history. They also marched together at the Sydney Games in 2000.
Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' center, cut an imposing presence as China's 7-foot-5 flag-bearer, and much of the field became a kaleidoscope of colors, races and nations.
Greek history, culture and civilization were celebrated during the Opening Ceremonies. Beyond the half-man, half-horse mythological centaur, a boy of maybe 10 floated on a ship into the arena. More than 554,000 gallons of water had been pumped in -- and eventually drained -- in one of the most elaborate productions ever staged during the Games.
A parade of ivory-coated statues that eventually came to life soon followed.
Before the Opening Ceremonies, the Greeks mocked themselves for their disorganized start and frenzied finish in the run-up to the Games, which were on the cusp of being taken away by the IOC in the summer of 2000. Performers dressed in hard hats brought hammers onto the stadium floor, using faux nails as if they were pounding in the last pegs of construction.
A nation's self-deprecation had some truth behind it. Not a day old, they could already be called the cut-and-paste Games.
Before the Games, Greece needed to take care of one small glitch: a torchbearer to ignite the Olympic cauldron.
Nikolas Kaklamanakis proudly stepped forward, less than 24 hours after innuendo and controversy sidelined the athlete who was supposed to have the honor: Kostas Kenteris, the defending 200-meter Olympic track champion, who skipped a drug test and was then reportedly injured in a motorcycle accident with fellow sprinter and training partner Katerina Thanou. They remained in an Athens hospital with injuries.
So it was left to Kaklamanakis, a three-time world champion windsurfer who won a gold medal in Atlanta in 1996 and carried the Greek flag in Sydney at the 2000 Games. He ascended Olympic Stadium's white stairs and met the 102-foot arm that dipped slowly over the stadium until he could reach the tip with his torch. The arm rose, the cauldron caught fire and the desperation and worry driving Athenians mad for months had died.
Twenty-eight centuries after the Olympics began, and for the first time in 104 years, the Games were theirs again.