By Paul Majendie
LONDON (Reuters) - At the Olympics in Ancient Greece, there was much eating, drinking and poetry reciting.
Ritual sacrifices placated Zeus and winners were crowned with olive wreaths. The male athletes ran naked and women were banned from the Games.
Now the opening ceremony is a giant shop window for the host nation to sell itself to a global audience of more than one billion people. Ranging from nationalistic fervor to camp bombast, it sets the tone for the Games.
Once all the razzmatazz of the showbusiness start is out of the way, however, the format is strictly laid down by the Olympic Charter.
First comes the Parade of Nations as the athletes file in, state by state, with Greece at the head and the host nation bringing up the rear. The athletes are of course what the Olympics are all about but even for diehard sports fans, this is a long, drawn-out affair.
Then come the speeches which are anodyne, strictly formatted and do not deviate. Cynics might say this is the perfect time for British television viewers to exit en masse and brew up a quick cup of tea.
Up first is the host city's Olympic chief, then International Olympic Committee (IOC) boss Jacques Rogge and finally the head of state proclaiming: "I declare open the Games of...." This was a job Queen Elizabeth first performed back in 1976 when, as Canada's monarch, she formally opened the Montreal Games.
The Olympic flag is then carried with much pomp and circumstance into the 80,000-seat stadium. and hoisted up the flagpole to the strains of the Olympic hymn.
One athlete and one judge then solemnly declare the Olympic oath, promising to obey the rules and committing ourselves to a sport without doping. Hurdler Ed Moses will not like to be reminded of the 1984 Los Angeles opening ceremony when he fluffed his lines.
Then comes the real tearjerker -the one moment that everyone remembers: the torch is brought into the stadium after its journey from Ancient Greece where it was originally lit by the power of the sun.
In Britain it had to survive a trip round the country in one of the wettest summers ever suffered by a country where discussing the weather is a national pastime.
Who lights the cauldron is one of the most closely guarded of all Olympic secrets. Irreverent British bookmakers have been having fun this time, even offering odds of 100-1 that Queen Elizabeth herself would grasp the torch and perform the task.
In Ancient Greece, messengers were sent far and wide to ensure that a truce was declared and no wars were fought during the Games.
At the Modern Olympics, doves were the perfect symbol, released across the stadium as a potent symbol of peace
That was until 1988 when the doves in Seoul got too close to the flame and were unceremoniously incinerated in a game pie that was not quite the grandiose gesture originally intended for the Games. (Editing by Clare Fallon)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp