LONDON -- Inside the stadium, everyone sang along to "Hey, Jude" with Sir Paul McCartney. Over the city, fireworks boomed out over the Tower Bridge. Around the world, two of every three people watched on television Friday night as the XXX Olympiad got underway, its history to be written over the next 16 days.
The rain mostly held off -- was that an omen portending good for these Games? -- in what has been one of the rainiest summers in British history, London playing host to the Olympics for the third time. It staged the Games in 1908 and again in 1948.
Seven young British torchbearers lit the cauldron -- a tiny flame within a copper petal on the ground that triggered the ignition of more than 200 petals and then converged to form a single "flame of unity." The cauldron is due to be moved to a different place into the stadium during the Games, then disassembled at the close of the Olympics -- meant to evoke a flower that blooms only for a while.
The party-vibe contrast with China, and 2008 -- which opened with the awe-inspiring sound of 2,008 drums, unmistakably signaling the portent of history -- could not have been more dramatic.
As the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, had said in London on Friday, "This is a time of some economic difficulty for the U.K. but look at what we are capable of achieving as a nation, even at a difficult economic time. This is not a a London Games, this is not an England Games, this is a United Kingdom Games."
This is also widely expected to be the Games of U.S. swim stars Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte; of Jamaican track and field standouts Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake; of the U.S. women's gymnastics team and Japan's Kohei Uchimura, perhaps the best male gymnast of all time.
The ceremony Friday, which ran over into early Saturday morning, underscored the important role that women, and female athletes in particular, seem destined to play at these Games.
For the first time, women from all 204 national Olympic committees will be competing in the Summer Olympics.
In his remarks in the stadium, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge, said, "This is a major boost for gender equality."
Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar had been the final holdouts; the flag-bearer from Qatar, for instance, Bahya Mansour Al Hamad, a shooter, is female.
The 529-member American delegation featured more women, 268, than men, 261 -- a consequence of 40 years of Title IX, the landmark federal law that prohibits discrimination in school and sports.
One of those 268 women, Mariel Zagunis, the gold medal-winning fencer, led the American team into Olympic Stadium -- cheered on by, in part, First Lady Michelle Obama.
In her Twitter feed, one of the female wrestlers on the U.S. team, Kelsey Campbell, said the First Lady offered some advice: "Have fun, try to breathe a little, and win!!!"
Brenda Villa, the U.S. women's water polo star playing in her fourth Olympics, said about the opening ceremony, "You walk in together behind our awesome American flag ... and then you just get this rush of adrenaline and you're, like, 'OK. We're here. It's on. Let's go.' "
Roughly 45 percent of the 10,500 athletes taking part in the London Games will be female. All 26 sports on the Olympic program will feature female competitors. Boxing, at last, will feature female competitors in three weight classes.
Finally, this, after an opening ceremony that saw or heard sheep and chickens; a time trip through the Industrial Age and the Digital Age; a military-jet flyover; the ringing of a big bell; Queen Elizabeth and James Bond; Mary Poppins and Lord Voldemort; Pink Floyd, the Sex Pistols, The Clash; and of course, Sir Paul.
All that - the show ran long, and still they let McCartney finish, unlike two weeks ago in Hyde Park, when he and Bruce Springsteen had the sound turned off.
With more than 60,000 people singing that sad song, and making it better.
Alan Abrahamson, NBC Olympics