ATHENS, Greece - The Olympics returned home Friday, offering the world an epic welcome with an opening ceremony invoking Greek mythology, civilization and culture before 72,000 fans assembled to greet the world's greatest athletes at the site of the games' 19th-century rebirth.
As cameras flashed in the stands at dusk, a countdown video ran on the screen at the recently completed Olympic Stadium - 28 seconds, one for each of the games since the 1896 event here in Athens, accompanied by the amplified sound of a human heartbeat.
The audience loudly counted down with the video screen. Then, with a blast of fireworks around the stadium roof, the ceremony was under way. Minutes later, the five Olympic rings were ablaze in fire in the middle of a manmade "sea" in the middle of the stadium.
The extravaganza kicking off the games was a victory for Greek organizers, who managed to pull together the 2004 Games despite serious construction delays, worldwide skepticism and terrorist fears.
An International Olympic Committee member who helped oversee the preparations noted how much was at stake.
"I think you have saved Greece and saved the IOC from great humiliation," Alex Gilady told Athens organizers.
But the pride and relief of Greek organizers was tempered by a doping scandal that could threaten the country's biggest track stars.
Under a new weblike stadium canopy - finally bolted into place only last month - the modern heirs of the Olympics hope to make the world forget the bumpy road to the opening ceremony and reset the clock to begin ticking down 16 days of competition.
Williams says she'll attend the opening ceremony because she has a break before she has to start playing tennis, and she enjoyed it so much four years ago in Sydney.
Not surprisingly, Greek mythology plays a central role in the extravaganza to officially begin the Olympiad. What's startling, however, is that the round-the-clock work blitz - under broiling sun and blinding spotlights - managed to accomplish what many considered out of reach: pulling together the vast network of venues, transport links, villages and security needed for the athletes and heads of state at the first Summer Games since the Sept. 11 attacks.
But things are just getting started.
A doping investigation has snared Greek heroes from the Sydney Games: 200-meter champion Kostas Kenteris and 100-meter silver medalist Katerina Thanou.
Kenteris had been considered the favorite to light the Olympic cauldron. Instead, he and Thanou were hospitalized with minor injuries following a motorcycle wreck. The accident came after the two were accused of evading a drug test, and they might miss the games.
Greek taxpayers also are starting to tally up the worrying bill. Officials say the games will exceed $7.2 billion, and some analysts say it could hit a staggering $12 billion, including a record $1.5 billion for security.
The big-budget show promises to run from reverent tradition to Las Vegas-style pageantry.
At its start, hundreds of drummers marched into the stadium, pounding to the rhythm of a heartbeat. A boy on a replica of a ship then sailed into the arena, waving a small Greek flag.
In another segment, a centaur - the mythological half man, half horse - tosses a javelin that begins the rise of a statue representing an ancient form from Greece's Cyclades islands. The form breaks apart to reveal other figures from Greek history.
The ancient god of love, Eros, flies above two lovers dancing and playing in the water.
Spectators will participate in the main ceremony by clapping and using flashlights and bells when signaled, according to people who saw the rehearsals.
The Icelandic singer Bjork was one of the night's headliners.
The main part of the ceremony is "an allegoric journey of the evolution of human consciousness ... from the mythological perception of the world to the logical," said Dimitri Papaioannou, the concept creator of the ceremony.
The parade of nations also will have a distinct Athens stamp.
Greece, because of its links to the ancient games, will enter first, as usual. But, as the host nation, Greek athletes will also be the last into the stadium in the biggest procession in Olympic history.
Among the 10,500 athletes under 202 flags: the debut appearance of competitors from the sprinkling of Pacific atolls known as Kiribati, and the return of Afghanistan after an eight-year absence, with Afghan women for the first time.
"So here we are. Little Greece is just a breath away from the miracle," wrote columnist Giorgos Karelias in the Eleftherotypia newspaper. "Here is little Greece that - after being stabbed in the back by supposed well-wishers or simply the uninformed - has gone to receiving praise at the 11th hour."
But Greece is lapping it up.
All along, Greek officials continually described the Olympics as a way to shed the country's reputation as a parochial and unruly corner of the European Union. The transport minister even said drivers' respect for Olympic lanes shows Greece can be "civilized."
The Olympic deadlines have forced projects long taken for granted in other European capitals: highways around city centers, a serious subway and rail network and efforts to preserve architectural landmarks.
"No country has been more underrated than Greece," said the chief organizer, Gianna Angelopoulos-Dasalaki.