ATHENS, Greece The Olympics are returning to their birthplace, putting a new twist on old traditions for the extravagant opening ceremony: The last will be first. The first will be last.
And they'll all be Greeks.
Greece, as host of the inaugural games, traditionally leads the parade of nations into the Olympic Stadium. As the host team, the Greeks must also enter last out of the record 202 participating countries. And so, when NBC begins its Olympic coverage Friday night, the Greek flag will precede the world's athletes and the Greek team will arrive last.
The old and the new provide a theme for the ceremony, where organizers promise to unite elements of ancient Greece and the 21st century, unveil a bow-and-arrow toting centaur, and flood the Olympic Stadium with water all in the name of good sportsmanship, if not always good taste.
''We have a brilliant opportunity to set the stage for a historic celebration of the modern Olympic Games, and of the ancient values and culture that gave them birth,'' said Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, Athens organizing committee head.
The ceremony's artistic director, 38-year-old Dimitris Papaioannou, said the key to the presentation was the involvement of Greece's youth teens and children who will recreate local life dating to 2000 B.C.
''This can only be done with people who are young,'' he said. ''The sheer energy has left us all speechless.''
Much of the attention, as always, focuses on the moment when the Olympic torch is lit as the world watches. Options range from something spectacular, like the flaming arrow launched at a cauldron 12 years ago in Barcelona, to someone spectacular, like Muhammad Ali and his wrenching 1996 Atlanta appearance.
There's no official word on this year's decision, and a veil of secrecy still surrounds some elements of the opening gala. But NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol promised viewers of the four-hour telecast would not be disappointed by the production, and the network will employ 61 cameras to bolster its boss' claim.
''It will really be breathtaking,'' said Ebersol, who attended the rehearsals. ''They've taken a wonderful, young approach to some beautiful, historic yarns.''
The ceremony returns the modern Olympics to where it began in 1896. The opening, before a crowd of 75,000, marks the first payoff on the organizers' mad scramble to prepare long-shot Athens for its 16-day Olympic encore.
Although the smallest country to host the Summer Olympics since Finland in 1952, Greece's preparations were big-time since its winning bid of seven years ago. Security ran around $1.5 billion at the first Summer Games since Sept. 11, 2001, with 70,000 law enforcers on the job.
The total price tag soared in last two years from $5.5 billion to more than $7.2 billion, with predictions it could break the $12 billion mark. But cash and criticisms are afterthoughts amid the pageantry that kicks off the quadrennial event.
The ceremonies were expected to begin with hundreds of drummers pounding to the rhythm of a heartbeat. Throughout the show, cameos were anticipated by performers as Eros, the ancient god of love, and Medusa, she of the serpentine hair.
More recognizable will be the Chinese delegation's flag-bearer: 7-foot-6 NBA star Yao Ming, who will lead the team of 407 athletes and 230 coaches and officials.
The U.S. team will be the 55th inside the stadium, rather than one of the last, because the Greek alphabet was used to assign slots. Two-time basketball gold medalist Dawn Staley will carry the American flag, leading a contingent that will include the men's basketball squad with coach Larry Brown.
The Caribbean island of Saint (''Agia'') Lucia will follow the Greek flag into the stadium as the first delegation to arrive. And the South and North Korean teams will march together under the same unification flag, as they did at the 2000 Games, with a flag bearer from each nation.
Dozens of foreign leaders and dignitaries were expected at the opening ceremony, including French President Jacques Chirac, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Once NBC's taped presentation of the ceremonies end, the games begin. For those suffering from the twin afflictions of insomnia and Olympic fever, CNBC will air live rowing competition both men and women beginning at 2 a.m. Saturday, followed by the first gold medal of the games: the women's air rifle.
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