With snow-capped mountain peaks looming in the background, a torn and tattered flag pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center was carried into the Olympic stadium Friday night, ushering in America's first Winter Games in more than two decades.

A sold-out crowd of 55,000 in the stadium and a worldwide television audience watched an honor guard of eight U.S. athletes, accompanied by New York City firefighters and police, carry the flag while the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" during a solemn tribute at the beginning of the ceremony.

Officials had hoped to raise the banner initially, but its frail condition made that impossible. Nevertheless, its entrance helped set the tone for this Olympics, both the "world's games" and America's games.

The first gold medal went to Stefania Belmondo of Italy on Saturday in the 15-kilometer freestyle cross-country race. Larissa Lazutina of Russia took the silver, and Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic won the bronze.

"I declare open the games of Salt Lake City, celebrating the Winter Olympic Games," Bush said in prepared remarks Friday, sticking to the script outlined by Olympic protocol.

The president might have felt comfortable with the opening show, which had a Western flavor that included a re-enactment of the journey West by Spanish explorers and Mormon pioneers.

But Bush watched emotionlessly as the athletes from Iran walked in the procession of nations. Bush named Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" in his State of the Union address.

Great Britain chose an American favorite to lead its delegation, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young.

About two hours after the ceremonies began, the Olympic flame finished its 13,500-mile journey through 46 states and into the stadium. Mike Eruzione and the rest of the 1980 gold-medal winning U.S. hockey team lighted the Olympic cauldron together, reaching to touch the flame to the cauldron together just as they reached for the gold medal together.

Those attending braved 15-mph wind and temperatures as low as 16 degrees Fahrenheit to attend the three-hour event that kicks off 17 days of competition, but security, not weather, seemed to have the greatest impact on the crowd.

While people were waiting to pass through metal detectors and fill the stadium ahead of the 8 p.m. EST start to the ceremonies, Black Hawk helicopters hovered overhead. A $310 million security plan involves 15,000 soldiers, Secret Service agents, police and volunteers, and those attending events can anticipate more helicopters in the air and searches on the ground.

Reversing an earlier decision, the International Olympic Committee agreed Wednesday to let Americans carry the flag recovered from the rubble of the World Trade Center into the stadium.

The flag, Romney said, is "a tribute not only to Americans but to citizens from 80 nations who were lost in that tragic event."

Organizers had planned to fly the flag at the celebration but determined it was too delicate. Peterson carried another flag on behalf of the U.S. team.

Competition was under way even before the official start of the games, with qualifying rounds in ski jumping Friday morning. Competition begins in earnest Saturday with events in moguls, cross-country skiing, hockey, figure skating and speed skating.

And befitting the icy nature of the Winter Games, snow has arrived in the area. While there was just enough to cover streets and sidewalks in Salt Lake City, heavier accumulations in the mountains early Friday delayed the ski jump qualifications and postponed or canceled practice runs for luge and the men's and women's downhills.

More than 2,500 athletes from 77 countries are participating in the games, which are expected to attract up to 80,000 spectators a day. The program is the largest for a Winter Olympics, with 78 events. That includes 10 new or returning events, including women's bobsled, and skeleton, a headfirst version of luge.

While security was a dominant presence before the opening — even athletes were forced to wait outside the Olympic Village while their bags were searched — it didn't detract from the spirit of the games.

The excitement was evident in Cheryl Joe, who will spend the Olympics in a ticket booth miles from the skiing and sledding that she will never get the chance to see.

Joe, a Navajo Indian, is downright giddy about being in that booth — and eager for the games to begin.

"I love it. It's awesome. It's great," she said from her post outside the Discover Navajo cultural exhibit.

"I'm sooo ready," she said. "Let's go!"

The Associated Press contributed to this report.