Dazzling opening ceremony launches 30th Olympic Games

London presented a vibrant picture of Great Britain's rich heritage and culture as a colourful opening ceremony marked the inauguration of the 30th Olympic Games at the spunky Olympic stadium on Friday night.

Queen Elizabeth II declared the Games open amidst thunderous cheers from the capacity crowd of 80,000 signalling the launch of the biggest sporting spectacle which returned to Britain after a gap of 64 years, giving the country the distinction of holding the mega event for an unprecedented third time.

The night sky lit up with dazzling fireworks as the Queen declared the Games open to herald London's moment of glory in the presence of as many as 100 heads of state and a host of other dignitaries who have descended on this historic city to witness the extravaganza, watched by an estimated one billion global audience.

The 27 million pound three-and-a-half-hour long opening ceremony, which magically transformed the stadium into a rural British idyll, complete with cows, horses, sheep and dogs and synthetic clouds to provide traditional British rain, was designed to give Britons a "picture of ourselves as a nation".

The 81-strong Indian contingent, the biggest ever, was led by wrestler Sushil Kumar, a bronze medallist in the 2008 Beijing Games. It was a smartly dressed Indian contingent. The men wore yellow safas, navy blue blazers, cream-coloured trousers, off-white shirts and ties, and the women were dressed in elegant sarees.

Indian Olympic Association (IOA) secretary-general Randhir Singh waved at the contingent from the VIP box.

Indians will take part in 13 disciplines. Four years ago, India won three medals, gold for shooter Abhinav Bindra and bronze medals for Sushil and boxer Vijender Singh.

Gold medal winning fencer Mariel Zagunis led the United States team into the Olympic Stadium. Two-time sabre gold-medallist Zagunis, 27, was chosen in a vote by the 529-strong American team. Four-time Olympic cycling champion Sir Chris Hoy led the Great Britain team. Hoy, 36, also carried the Union Jack at the closing ceremony in Beijing four years ago. The British team was the last of the 205 nations to enter the arena.

Basketball star Yi Jianlian led the China team. The Dallas Mavericks centre succeeds fellow basketball hero Yao Ming who carried the flag on home soil at the Beijing Games in 2008. China has brought a 396-strong team to London.

Australia's Lauren Jackson led her country's team, the first Australian woman in 20 years to carry the flag at a Summer Games. The 31-year-old Jackson was appearing at her fourth Olympic Games after leading the women's basketball team to silver in Beijing four years ago. Chef de Mission Nick Green said Jackson had been chosen for her leadership qualities on and off the court, but her appointment to carry the flag also followed a row over gender equality in Australia in recent weeks.

Five time Olympic beach volleyballer Natalia Cook said last week, apparently in jest, that she would stage a sit-down protest if she had to walk behind another male flag bearer, while there were also complaints about travel arrangements.

The women's basketball team, who have been runners-up to the United States at the last three Games, flew to London in economy class while the country's men, who have never won a medal, went in business class.

The arrangements were slammed by Australian media and politicians, forcing the country's basketball governing body to say it would review its policy. The last Australian woman to lead out the team was diver Jenny Donnet in Barcelona in 1992.

Saudi Arabia's first female Olympic athletes made their appearance at the opening ceremony to the London Games on Friday, dressed in traditional hijabs, or Islamic headscarfs. Saudi Arabia was one of three countries, alongside Brunei and Qatar, never to have sent female athletes to the Olympics but the latter two confirmed earlier this year that their delegations would include women. Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani and Sarah Attar are due to compete in the +78kg category in judo and 800 metres respectively after Saudi Arabia broke with its practice of sending male-only teams to the world's biggest multi-sports event.

On Thursday, International Judo Federation president Marius Vizer said Shaherkani would have to fight without a hijab - a decision that is likely to cause controversy in Saudi Arabia, where female participation in sports has long been a controversial issue.

Powerful clerics denounce women for exercising, saying it goes against their natural role.

Greece's Olympic team entered the stadium at the head of a parade of athletes from the 204 nations participating in the 2012 London Games. The Greeks were led by flag bearer Alexandros Nikolaidis, a two-time taekwondo silver medallist. The beleaguered country's athletes always come out first in honour of Greece's place as the birthplace of the Olympic Games. After that, countries parade in alphabetical order, with host Britain last.

Roughly 10,500 athletes are participating, although some have skipped the three-hour ceremony in order to be well-rested for competition.

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