The Asian Games officially open with a glitzy gala ceremony on Friday, culminating years of planning for a massive event that is set to reinforce China’s regional sporting dominance.
The extravagenza heralds the most ambitious Asiad so far with more than 14,000 athletes and officials from 45 countries and territories angling for gold in 42 sports.
The Games run until November 27, with hosts China heavily favoured to top the medal table, with South Korea and Japan battling for second place.
“After six years of hard work, I am pleased to announce that the preparatory work of the 16th Asian Games has been completed,” said Guangzhou vice mayor Xu Ruisheng.
Security forces mounted a sweeping operation to isolate the fenced-off venue for Friday’s opening ceremony, on an island in the Pearl River, with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao due to attend.
But as dusk fell over the city thousands of people streamed to the spectacular setting near the giant Canton Tower ahead of the start at 8:00 pm (1200 GMT).
Just as Beijing did before the 2008 Olympics, Guangzhou has poured billions of dollars into getting this sprawling southern metropolis ready.
While the city does not have the glamour of Beijing and Shanghai, officials here are hoping the Games will help transform it into one of Asia’s top destinations.
In preparation, it has embarked on several huge infrastructure projects — a new rail station, a gleaming trade centre, subway lines, housing projects, highways and bridges.
It has also constructed or renovated 70 sporting facilities.
Security is a major focus, with more than 100,000 police officers on duty to keep it safe, along with hundreds of thousands of security guards and volunteers.
“As the Guangzhou Asian Games will have the most ever athletes, officials and reporters in the history of the Asian Games, the security work has been a great challenge,” a statement from the Games security panel said.
“The security panel has adopted effective and necessary measures to ensure a safe Games. We have done our best to provide a safe and favorable environment for athletes, coaches, officials and audiences.”
It all kicks off with the opening ceremony and in a change to standard procedure the show, beamed to a television of audience of billions, will be held on an island in the Pearl River rather than a stadium.
Organisers promise the largest lighting show ever seen at a major sports event, based around a theme prominently featuring the local Lingnan culture.
Film starlet Zhang Ziyi and world-renowned pianist Lang Lang will perform together in one of the highlights of the show.
“All chapters of the performances will be linked together under the theme of water, which is a traditional element of Lingnan culture,” said He Jiqing, the ceremony’s deputy director.
While the two Koreas marched together at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, 2004 Athens Olympics and 2006 Doha Asian Games in a sign of reconciliation, it appears unlikely to happen in Guangzhou.
Relations between the two neighbours remain tense after the sinking of South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in March that claimed 46 lives.
All the athletes will arrive by a convoy of pleasure boats, including those from war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Iran and the Palestinian territories.
Other than the opening ceremony, no events were held Friday with the competition proper kicking off on Saturday.