The Olympic Games return to their birthplace Friday, more than a century after their modern reincarnation, with Greek sponsors planning a ceremonial extravaganza to honor the best athletes from 202 countries but also to showcase one of the world's oldest cultures and civilizations.
Hundreds of millions are expected to watch telecasts of the Opening Ceremonies, which begin at 1:45 p.m. EDT Friday in Athens' new Olympic Stadium. NBC will open its U.S. broadcast at 8 p.m. EDT via tape delay, the start of more than 1,000 hours of programming over 17 days on the network and its cable affiliates.
Organizers are promising that the four-hour opening pageant will be a visual feast, featuring 4,000 performers, a submerged stadium infield and tributes to Greek divinities such as Bacchus (the god of wine and revelry) and Eros (the god of sexual attraction).
"It's a declaration," said Dimitris Papaioannou, the designer and artistic director for the Opening Ceremonies. "It's an announcement of the country's spirit, the spirit of the hosts."
About 10,000 athletes will parade through the stadium, country by country. Greece has always gone first in the past, in deference to its distinction as the original home of the Olympics. Since tradition also holds that the host nation goes last, a Greek flag will lead the lineup but Greek athletes will wait until the end to make their entrance.
The rest of the teams will appear in alphabetical order -- according to the Greek language version -- starting with the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Iraq will make its return to the Games, and North and South Korean athletes will file in together. Marching along in 55th place: the U.S. squad, which has been admonished to display its best sportsmanlike behavior.
Some famous athletes are not planning to participate so they can focus instead on preparing for the competition. The entire 42-member Australian swimming squad, including gold medal winner Ian Thorpe, will be a no-show after the team doctor advised that standing too long on their feet could affect their performance in the pool. U.S. swimming sensation Michael Phelps has said he will abstain for the same reason.
Greece is the smallest nation to stage the Olympics in a half century, and organizers had to endure doubts until the end that they were capable of succeeding. In 2000, the International Olympic Committee nearly took away the franchise from Greece after finding that construction and planning had fallen far behind schedule.
Skeptics fretted that Athens's notorious traffic congestion and lack of modern athletic venues made the city a poor choice. But after a stressful sprint to finish on an array of public works projects, organizers said they managed to overcome the obstacles. All told, Greece is spending more than $7 billion to stage the Games, including $1.5 billion to provide security -- about six times the amount set aside for that purpose in Sydney in 2000.
"The journey . . . has been long and difficult," Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, president of the Athens 2004 organizing committee, told IOC members in a final pre-Games meeting Thursday. "But the whole world will discover that modern Greeks have the same ambitions and abilities as the ancients who gave us the Olympic Games. And they will see that when Greeks make a promise, we keep it."
IOC members expressed relief. "I think you have saved Greece and saved the IOC from great humiliation," said Alex Gilady, an IOC member from Israel.
After traveling around the globe, the Olympic flame spent the night on the Acropolis, waiting to be transported to the modern 75,000-seat stadium.
"We're showing an epic story very much on a human scale," said David Zwolker, production director for the Opening Ceremonies. "It is a stadium theatre, with the emphasis on theatre. The entire space has been transformed into a massive theatrical machine."