Beijing - For the past seven years, through clouds of construction dust, thousands of meetings, millions of man-hours and unprecedented political mobilization, China has waited for today to showcase its best side to the world.
At $41 billion, the Beijing Olympics are perhaps the most expensive coming-out party in history. And the belle of the ball has a lot to be proud of. China and its people have risen from poverty and social chaos to engineer one of the largest, most sustained economic success stories in history.
They've put themselves on the global political map and become a model for developing countries. With a delegation of 600 athletes, they also hope to punctuate their accomplishments with a slew of gold medals between now and Aug. 24.
"This is such a great moment for China," said Chen Yongming, 55, an engineer and big fan of track and field, table tennis and swimming. "We're very proud of our civilization and hope to win support from the international community."
At a time when the government should be beaming, however, it has the jitters. An attack on a police station in the province of Xinjiang on Monday in the nation's far western reaches that killed 16 paramilitary members hasn't helped.
Nor has an expected wave of protests by foreign activists keen to "bait the panda bear" having managed to enter China despite stepped-up visa restrictions, a real-name ticketing system and extensive screening.
Almost lost in the lead-up is the fact that the world has gathered here for a sporting event. About 10,700 athletes from 205 countries will be competing in 28 sports. After finishing second to the United States in the gold-medal standings - 36 to 32 - in Athens four years ago, China, according to experts, could prevail this time.
Chinese sports officials downplay that possibility, saying it is more important that the country stages a successful Games. Still, seven years ago they implemented Project 119, with an engine of 3,000 sports schools throughout the country, designed to make China an international sports superpower.
The United States counters with a typically strong team led by swimmer Michael Phelps, a Rodgers Forge native who, after winning six gold medals in Athens, could surpass Mark Spitz's single-Games record of seven by winning eight; Towson native Katie Hoff, Phelps' North Baltimore Aquatic Club teammate who is attempting to win six; women gymnasts Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin, both vying for the all-around championship and the title as the "Next Mary Lou"; and track and field stars Tyson Gay, Allyson Felix and Jeremy Wariner.
While some expect the early overhang of tension and heavy-handed security to fade as the Games get under way, the difficult lead-up has left some wondering whether this party is worth the price tag.
"There's been a drastic change in outlook by the political leadership from 'coming-out show' to 'let's let the Olympics pass without a crisis,' " said Cheng Li, senior fellow with the Brookings Institution in Washington. "They've really lowered expectations."
International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge acknowledged this week that the Chinese face "some challenges." But he remains at least publicly optimistic about the next 16 days. "I think history will view the Games as a significant milestone in China's remarkable transformation," Rogge said.
Seven years ago, when Beijing waxed euphoric at having won the right to host the 2008 Games, there were visions of a surging economy, unqualified international praise and an improved media and human rights record that would reverse the stain of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and cement China's spot at the global table.
While some of this has materialized, the fates have not blessed China despite today's carefully timed opening ceremony linked to a belief in lucky eights - 8/8/08 at 8:08 p.m.
This year has seen a series of food and toy quality scandals, a massive February snowstorm, Tibetan riots in March, the torch relay protests in April and massive Sichuan earthquake in May.
The government also finds itself battling a chorus of foreign critics howling that it has not met the press freedom and human rights commitments agreed to in 2001. If anything, the government has cracked down harder on critics and activists in recent months to safeguard order and avoid embarrassment.
Predictions of economic bounty after the Games seem elusive amid a slowing U.S. economy and tighter visa policies that have undercut tourism.
And the blue sky China promised, and spent an estimated $17 billion to make happen, has remained frustratingly elusive despite traffic reduction measures, shuttered factories, cloud seeding and appeals to ancient gods.
While part of China's objective in hosting the Games is to impress the world, a bigger focus is boosting domestic support for the leadership by linking it with sports, patriotism and gold medals, a strategy, incidentally, Western leaders are not above.