Olympic carnival begins with a bang at Rio opening ceremonies

Vanderlei de Lima lights the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Fri., Aug. 5, 2016.
Vanderlei de Lima lights the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Fri., Aug. 5, 2016. AP

For at least three hours on a balmy Friday night, Brazilians got a respite from months of bad publicity, a chance to belt out bossa nova, dance the samba, watch supermodel Gisele sashay across Maracana Stadium and be distracted from the political and economic turmoil that have weighed on the nation in recent years.

The focus of the Rio Olympics shifted from overspending, polluted water, the Zika virus, and the Russian doping scandal to the 10,000 athletes competing here; and the 17-day party kicked off with a scaled-down but colorful, high-energy Opening Ceremony befitting this fun-loving seaside city.

Hoping the ceremony would be “a drug for depression in Brazil,” event organizer, Oscar-nominated film director Fernando Meirelles, was determined to depict an honest view of his country, the good and the bad. He aimed to show the 70,000 in attendance and the expected television audience of 3 billion that despite their troubles and poverty, Brazilians “live together, never went to war, are peaceful, and know how to enjoy life.”

The locals certainly seemed to enjoy the show, based on the swinging hips of the Brazilian athletes as they entered the stadium and the fans in the stands, who sang at the top of their lungs.

But the day was not quite as perfect as the weather or the idyllic message of the ceremony.

In the early afternoon, a few thousand demonstrators marched along Copacabana beach to protest the government; and the final leg of the torch relay, which had begun at the Christ the Redeemer statue, had to be re-routed. According to a Reuters report, police used tear gas to quell a small group of protesters near Maracana Stadium who were burning a Brazilian flag shortly before the start of the show.

Traffic snarls clogged the city’s streets, especially around the stadium, where many of the 80,000 police and soldiers were deployed.

And, the world’s best-known Brazilian, soccer legend Pele, who was expected to light the cauldron, on Friday afternoon said he would be “physically unable” to attend. The 75-year-old underwent hip replacement surgery last year and is walking with a cane.

Pele added: “Only God is more important than my health. In my life, I’ve had fractures, surgeries, pain, hospital stays, victories and defeats. And I’ve always respected those who admire me. As a Brazilian, I ask God to bless all who participate in this event.”

Pele’s last-minute replacement was former marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro, best remembered as the bronze medalist of the 2004 Athens Olympics who was leading before a fan attacked him. He was handed the torch by former basketball star Hortencia, who got the torch from retired tennis great Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten, a former world No. 1 and three-time French Open winner.

The show was every bit the party you’d expect from a country known for its carnival and samba parades. The limited budget and narrow stadium entryways prevented organizers from the kind of extravaganzas put on by Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012. But fun was in full supply, and included the music of Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, as well as the pulsating sounds of “Passinho,” a street dance style created in the clubs of Rio’s favelas.

British actress Judi Dench and 86-year-old Oscar-nominated Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro read the classic poem ‘A Flor e a Nausea’ (Flower and Nausea) about a flower growing in the asphalt in a heavily-polluted city.

Among the themes of the night was “Gambiarra,” a Brazilian phrase and life credo that means to make do, to improvise to solve problems. Meirelles had to subscribe to that motto as his budget was repeatedly cut along with Brazil’s economic downturn.

“When we started we were rich, we had an international crew, we watched some shows in Vegas, we were very ambitious with the technology we wanted to use,” he said. “We were looking at a budget of 113.9 million U.S.dollars (for the four ceremonies — Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Olympic and Paralympic Games).

“But little by little it has been cut and now our budget is 55.9 million U.S. dollars for four ceremonies. Most of this money is for security, and all the stuff around the show. I think it is 12 times less than London, 20 times less than Beijing.”

He embraced the lower-scale show. “When 40 percent of the homes in Brazil have no sanitation, you can’t really be spending a billion reals for a show.”

The two-hour Parade of Nations featured Afghanistan, Zimbabwe and the 205 nations in between, including the first Refugee Olympic Team, which received a loud roar from the crowd. Every athlete entering the stadium was given a bag with a seed and soil, and they will be planted together in Rio to form an Athletes’ Forest.

The 555-member USA delegation marched in wearing red-white-and-blue Polo Ralph Lauren and was led by flag bearer Michael Phelps, the swim star and winner of 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold. He was scheduled to be whisked out of the stadium after the parade so he could rest for the swim competition, which begins Saturday.

The letters “USA” were illuminated on the back of Phelps’ jacket.

Among the other flagbearers: tennis stars Rafael Nadal (Spain), Andy Murray (Great Britain); sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce (Jamaica); NBA player Luis Scola (Argentina); pentathlete Yane Marques (Brazil); and wrestler Mijain Lopez (Cuba). The depleted Russian team was led by volleyball player Sergei Tetiukhin.

Bermuda wore (of course) knee-length shorts. Lesotho (yes, it’s a country), Aruba and Panama wore memorable hats. Portugal, which got a huge cheer, showed up in ripped jeans. Getting an equally warm reception was Tonga, led by shirtless, oiled-up taekwondo athlete Pita Taufatofua.

Rio 2016 President Carlos Nuzman got emotional as he declared: “I am the proudest man alive. Proud of my city. Proud of my country. These are your games. The first in South America.”

Let the party begin.

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