Rio Olympics opens with cultural extravaganza

But political intrigue was never far away in 4-hour opening ceremony
© Getty
Rio de Janeiro treated the world to an extravaganza of Brazil’s rich culture during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on Friday night, from bossa nova jazz to bottom-wiggling funk music from the favelas, as it sought to show its best side.
The four-hour spectacle that launched the first South American games was watched by tens of thousands of people inside the famed Maracanã football stadium, and billions on television around the world.
The cheerful but relatively low-key opening allowed Brazilians to forget for a short while the harsh backdrop to the Games — including a deep recession, a corruption scandal at state-owned oil company Petrobras and a political crisis as leftwing President Dilma Rousseff battles impeachment.
Yet political intrigue was never far away. Rather than Ms Rousseff, her nemesis, interim president Michel Temer, presided over the ceremony but did not appear on TV screens in the stadium. But when the crowd heard his voice over the speakers declaring the Games open, he was booed.
Outside the stadium a group of protesters against the Temer government was dispersed by riot police after trying to penetrate a security perimeter, Brazilian media reported.
The ceremony was more subtle than London’s £27m theatrical spectacular four years ago. Hard-up Brazilian authorities opted for a show that reportedly cost half that staged by Britain’s capital.
The 4,800 performers who took part on Friday, including Brazilian singer-songwriters Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and supermodel Gisele Bündchen who appeared as the Girl from Ipanema, all agreed to participate for free.
Putting on the event at the Maracanã stadium also created challenges. Low seating and small entrances ruled out large stages, or moving floats that could mimic Rio’s annual Carnival.
Instead, the ceremony’s creators relied on video projections to turn the stadium’s floor into a giant screen. The ground was emblazoned with moving geometric patterns in honour of Brazil’s modernist artists such as Burle Marx, who designed the pavements bordering Copacabana beach.
Organisers embraced the cut-price ethos throughout by celebrating “gambiarra” — the Brazilian love of quick fixes through thriftiness and ingenuity. Giant cushions, for instance, turned into drums. Paper boxes were turned into a plane that “flew” out of the stadium.
The story of Brazil was told using projected images with dancers moving over them, such as a scene showing the rise of the country’s high-rise cities.
Difficult social or political themes were avoided, however, aside from a scene showing the arrival of slavery. Rio instead sought to emphasis Brazil’s importance as an environmental power, through its custody of most of the Amazon rainforest.
Fireworks at the Rio Olympics opening ceremony
“We had a budget way below what you would expect for an event of this type, but we are pretty used to working this way,” said Daniela Thomas, one of the show’s creators.
She had worked alongside some of Brazil’s leading artists, including film director Fernando Meirelles, the maker of “City of God” about the violence in Rio’s favelas, and choreographer Deborah Colker.
“Our admiration for you is greater because you have achieved this in a difficult time in Brazilian history,” said Thomas Bach, IOC president, in a speech. “We have always believed in you.”
On the international front, realpolitik was never far away. The run-up to the Games had been dominated by revelations of state-sponsored doping by Russia, with the World Anti-Doping Association recommending a blanket ban on the country’s participation. The IOC opted for a compromise, disappointing many western nations who had wanted tougher action.
During the athletes’ parade, 40-year-old volleyball player Sergey Tetyukhin carried Russia’s flag into the stadium to a smattering of cheers. In doing so, his country defiantly took its place at the games, though its team is depleted. The IOC decided on Thursday that only 271 members of Russia’s original 389-strong squad could appear.
The message behind the ceremony was positive, with the athletes placing seeds that would eventually be used to plant a forest, said Luiz Carlos Lourenço, a Brazilian wearing a green-and-yellow hat, the country’s colours.
As he sat having a beer at one of the restaurants lining Copacabana Beach, he said the ceremony had gone well. “At least there was no terrorist attack,” said Mr Lourenço.
The event required a last quick fix. Pelé, the country’s greatest footballer, was due to light the Olympic cauldron, designed by American sculptor Anthony Howe. But only hours before the start the 75-year-old, who had hip surgery in December, said he was too poorly to take part.
Instead, it was marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima who took the honour to start the 31st Olympiad.
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