The Olympic Games returned to their spiritual home tonight with an opening ceremony that brought the myths of Ancient Greece back to life through the magic of 21st century technology.

Athens, on the verge of losing the Games four years ago because of chaotic preparations, raised the curtain on the greatest show on earth with a flourish before a worldwide audience of up to four billion people.

Drums thumping out the sound of a human heartbeat reverberated under the soaring glass wings of a futuristic oval arena that only months ago had no seats and no roof.

The stadium floor was flooded with water, creating a shimmering sea that burst into flames as the five Olympic rings were set ablaze by a pyrotechnic comet flashing from the sky.

A child in a paper boat floated across the lake in one of the night's most enduring images.

In the first Summer Games since the September 11, 2001, attacks, the celebration of sporting prowess was staged under Europe's biggest peacetime security blanket. Security personnel in Athens outnumber athletes by seven to one.

Guarded from afar by Patriot missiles, and watched over by airships and helicopters, the ceremony featuring competitors from a record 202 countries offered the world a chance to forget its troubles for three hours.

The security measures were a far cry from the original concept of the Ancient Games when, throughout Greece, warriors laid down their arms to allow athletes to compete in peace.

Filed by Barry J Whyte