LONDON, July 27: The eagerly awaited opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympic Games kicked off on Friday with a mass countdown and the chime of a giant bell, ushering in an eccentric and exuberant celebration of British history, art and culture.

Some 60,000 spectators crowded into the state-of-the-art arena at the Olympic Park, built in a previously run-down area of the city’s East End, and over a billion more people tuned in around the world for the three-hour extravaganza.

The centre of the stadium was transformed into an English pastoral idyll complete with grassy meadows, fences, hedges, a water mill, maypoles and even a cottage with smoking chimney.

A cast, including shepherdesses, sheep, geese, dogs and a village cricket team, filled the stage during the one-hour prologue to the show.

At one end of the stadium stands a grassy knoll topped by a tree and at the other end the bell. In front of each is a “mosh pit” of people conjuring the spirit of the Glastonbury music festival and Last Night of the Proms classical concert.

London Mayor Boris Johnson sought to sum up the mood of excitement sweeping the capital.

“The excitement is growing so much I think the Geiger counter of Olympo-mania is going to go zoink off the scale,” he told crowds at Hyde Park in the city centre.

Among the crowd were celebrities, ordinary Londoners, visitors from abroad and dignitaries, including US First Lady Michelle Obama as well as presidents, prime ministers and European royalty.

Over the following 17 days, the drama of sporting contest takes hold as more than 16,000 athletes from 204 countries will aim to achieve their ultimate dream – Olympic gold.

Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle has masterminded the show, costing 27 million pounds ($42 million) to stage, less than half the estimated spending on the Beijing equivalent in 2008 and dramatically different in style.

The ceremony opened with a countdown followed by a chime of an especially cast, 23-ton Olympic bell which was rung by Britain’s Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins.—Reuters

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