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China's Games Party Set For "Big Bang" Start

China celebrates its ancient past and modern power when the Olympics open on Friday, looking to put criticism behind it as world leaders arrived in Beijing.

The opening ceremony is the culmination of seven years of hard work that reshaped the capital, and sets the seal on a sustained economic boom that has seen China emerge as a new superpower.

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"It's a historic combination of a great country with a great sport event," the People's Daily said.

Guests in the head-turning "Bird's Nest" Olympic stadium will include U.S. President George W. Bush, who flew in straight after making some of his bluntest criticism on human rights.

Displaying its new economic clout, China has invested $43 billion on the Games. Some $100 million, twice the 2004 Athens bill, has gone on "big bang" opening and closing ceremonies.

The elements, though, have proved stubbornly hard to master.

Authorities have closed factories and pulled millions of cars off the road, but smog and haze enveloped the capital on Friday morning -- obscuring views of the futuristic skyline.

It all kicks off at 8 p.m. on the eighth day of the eighth month -- the number symbolises fortune here -- before an estimated global audience of one billion.

With 8 hours to go, foreign activists issued an on-air challenge to the host city with a pirate broadcast, calling for freeing of political prisoners and lifting of censorship.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said China's attempts to control the media "would never succeed". Their words were often drowned out by a local official broadcast.

Small groups of foreign protesters have also popped up in Beijing this week, but have been whisked off quickly by police forming part of a 100,000-strong security force.

Suspected Islamist separatists killed 16 policemen in western China on Monday, and on Thursday a little-known Islamist group issued an Internet threat to the Games.

A video dated Aug. 1 carried pictures of the Beijing Olympics logo in flames and a speaker holding an AK-47 assault rifle and wearing a face mask, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.- based firm that monitor statements from militants.

In Hong Kong, a lone protester unfurled banners on the largest suspension bridge on Friday calling for human rights.

Flag Waving

The best-known face of Chinese sport, 7ft 6in NBA basketball player Yao Ming, will lead his team at the opening ceremony.

But in a move that could embarrass both China and Sudan, U.S. athletes chose former Sudanese refugee Lopez Lomong, a victim of government-sponsored Arab militias in the south who fled at the age of six in 1991, to carry their flag around the track.

China is a major oil investor and arms seller in Sudan, and global campaigners blame it for failing to pressure Khartoum to end the conflict in its western region of Darfur.

Unfortunately for the Olympic ideal of global harmony, the two Koreas failed
to agree to march at the opening as a unified team even though they managed that
in 2004 and 2000.

And though Bush said he was coming for sport not politics, he gave a speech in Bangkok en route voicing "firm opposition" to China's detention of dissidents.

The finer points of global geo-politics are unlikely, however, to dampen the enthusiasm of many Chinese.

"My heart is bursting with excitement about the Games," said Zhu Shegqiang, a 22-year-old student walking through Tiananmen Square. "I want people to see what is special about China."

Some 15,000 performers and 29,000 fireworks will give the Games a sparkling start. Film director Zhang Yimou was tasked with condensing 5,000 years of Chinese history into one show.

The opening ceremony has been ensnared in politics from the outset: Hollywood director Steven Spielberg quit as an adviser earlier this year to protest against China's ties with Sudan.

Sporting action hits top gear the day after the ceremony.

After weeks of less than glowing headlines, China can look forward to a probable publicity boost. The first gold will almost certainly be awarded in the 10m air rifle contest on Saturday, and Chinese shooter Du Li is a strong favourite to win.

Former Cold War foes Russia and the United States have traditionally fought it out at the top of the medal tables.

But China, boosted by a Soviet-style training system that selects children from an early age based on physical attributes, has been creeping up. Beijing came third in the gold medal table at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and second at the 2004 Athens Games.

Now everyone is asking: can it go one better?

Soccer has been under way already this week. A Ronaldinho-led Brazil, who have never won Olympic gold despite five World Cup triumphs, defeated Belgium 1-0 on Friday. Argentina beat Ivory Coast 2-1, with Lionel Messi playing and scoring after a tug-of-war with his club Barcelona over his appearance.

"It was beautiful because it was my first in the Olympic Games but personally I don't give it much importance," the player told Argentine media in Shanghai.