BEIJING - US President George Bush flew in for China's Olympics party yesterday fresh from criticising its rights record - but attention finally swung to sport with soccer powerhouses Brazil and Argentina off to winning starts.
Bush touched down the day before today's opening ceremony after some of his bluntest comments yet about a nation many view as likely to rival his own for global hegemony this century.
China wants the 16-day Games to show its best face and paraded the Olympic torch at daybreak along a mist-shrouded Great Wall, surrounded by cheering masses, in a tradition dating back to the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
But to the annoyance of the communist government, the Olympics have also galvanised its global critics, especially over Chinese rule in Tibet.
Away from the politics, a Ronaldinho-led Brazil, who have never won Olympic gold in men's soccer despite five World Cup triumphs, beat Belgium 1-0.
The soccer has started before today's official start of the Games in the Bird's Nest stadium.
China's women's team also delighted the host nation with a win.
Across China, excitement has built as the tortuous and troubled torch relay draws to a close and the country's 1,3 billion people prepare for the Olympics' most expensive opening ceremony. All in, the Games are costing some $43 billion.
Officially-organised but wildly excited crowds cheered the torch through Beijing this week in images China hopes will erase memories of the Tibet protests on its international tour.
"There have been problems with the torch - but now is the time for the party!" said Weng Chengyu, a 28-year-old student as doves flew and confetti rained on the torch at the Great Wall.
Smog and sweltering heat remain a concern for athletes, though neither are unique to Beijing. Skies were hazy again yesterday, but authorities, who spent $18 billion on cleanup moves, said air quality was fairly good.
August is thunderstorm season in Beijing, and organisers have talked of using experimental technology to "seed" rain clouds to ensure it stays dry for tomorrow's opening.
China's giant basketball player Yao Ming will carry the host nation's flag at that ceremony. The two Koreas have failed to agree a joint march, as they did in 2000 and 2004.
Undeterred by a 100000- strong security force in Beijing, small groups of protesters have popped up this week to demonstrate over Tibet, abortion and animal rights.
Despite saying he was coming for sports not politics, President Bush delivered a speech in Bangkok en route voicing "firm opposition" to China's detention of dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists.
Beijing defended its record, saying people enjoyed a range of freedoms. But it added a warning: "We resolutely oppose any words or actions which interfere in the internal affairs of another country in the name of issues such as human rights and religion."
Many Chinese have been offended by criticism of their nation ahead of the Games they view as a moment of national glory.
Doping dominated the start of Athens 2004. But the International Olympic Committee said nobody was positive in 650 tests conducted so far on athletes reaching China. - Reuters