DOHA: The 15th Asian Games was officially opened last night by the Amir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani at the Khalifa Stadium here following a spectacular three-hour ceremony. Years of planning and billions of dollars in investment have gone into the Games which are the most ambitious so far, with athletes from 45 countries angling for gold in 39 sports. The competition runs until December 15, with China heavily favoured to top the medal table.
The Qatari Amir declared the Games open in front of an estimated television audience of three billion people, after torrential rain that was threatening to disrupt the ceremony stopped just in time.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were on hand to witness the event, as was International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge.
"The Asian Games have come a long way and are now not celebrated as a small competition but as a platform for peace and harmony," said Olympic Council of Asia president Shaikh Ahmad Al Fahad Al Sabah.
"The ultimate aim of an athlete is to represent their country and I am confident Doha will add a new chapter in the history of the Asian Games."
A whirlwind of Asian culture and Arabian splendour marked the opening.
The honour of lighting the 50-metre cauldron was given to the Qatari Amir's son Shaikh Mohammed, the captain of Qatar's equestrian endurance team.
Astride a pure-bred Arab gelding, he received the Asian Games flame at the end of its 55,000km relay route and his steed rode up a flight of stairs to the top of the stadium.
More than 30,000 fireworks lit up the night sky as the lavish production evoked the rich history of the region in a performance even rain failed to dampen.
Hollywood star Sunidhi Chauhan and Hong Kong singer and film actor Jacky Cheung performed for the rapt crowd, while Spanish tenor Jose Carreras sang with Lebanese Magida El Roumi, one of the most popular singers in the Arab world.
The six-metre high Asian Games flame will remain alight for the duration of the event.