The most efficient team in Rio might be the one dressed in black with the riot gear.
A couple of hours before the Friday night’s Opening Ceremony, a small group of anti-Olympic protestors took to the streets outside Maracana stadium. They waved placards and chanted slogans denouncing government austerity and the budget-busting cost of staging the Summer Games during the country’s three-year recession. Then someone set a Brazilian flag alight and the cops waded in. It took only a couple of minutes—along with some tear gas and flash grenades—to disperse the modest crowd. But the message was unmistakeable: spoilsports aren’t welcome at the party.
Inside the stadium, 55,000 exponentially more relaxed and happy Brazilians gathered to celebrate what others have denounced and denigrated. And after all these months of bad press and dire predictions, the Opening Ceremony delivered what the 2016 Summer Games sorely needed—some fun and hope.
Brazilian director Fernando Mereilles, who oversaw the pageant, had been busy dampening expectations, promising an “analog” celebration with far fewer bells and whistles than the mass spectaculars at Beijing 2008 and London 2012. But visually it was just as stunning. Images projected on the white floor covering the football field invoked Brazil’s geology, then history, and finally present, as dancers and acrobats twisted and twirled. There were hefty helpings of samba, rap and pop. And the simple moments—like a paired down version of Brazil’s national anthem, sung by Paulinho da Viola as he softly strummed an acoustic guitar, accompanied by a small string section—were even better.
Soccer immortal Pelé, who would had been the obvious choice to light the flame, didn’t show, letting it be known earlier in the day that poor health would keep him away. (Now 75, he is hobbled by hip problems.) Instead, we got Vanderlei de Lima, the Brazilian marathoner who was tackled by a crazed Irish protestor as he led in the latter stages of the race in Athens in 2004. He ultimately finished in third, winning bronze, receiving his full measure of glory in front of his home fans on this night 12 years later.
The athletes parade featured 206 nations, plus a team of “independent athletes” (mostly Kuwaitis whose national Olympic committee has been suspended since 2012 due to a spat with the IOC) and a new squad for refugees. It literally took hours, but there were plenty of moments of joy. Canada’s team, one of the biggest at the Games with 314 athletes, received warm cheers marching behind trampolinist Rosie MacLennan, the country’s only gold medalist four years ago in London. “I am beyond excited. The moment you get the flag, it just all becomes so real. This pretty much tops it off. I thought my dreams came true in London but this is beyond my wildest dreams,” she said afterwards.
The crowd roared for Portugal. The Russians, minus 118 athletes who have been barred for past doping infractions and current suspicions, got a polite welcome. There were scattered whistles of disdain for the small official Syrian team, and sustained cheering for their countrymen and women now competing under the refugee banner. And the crowd screamed, danced and sang for the home team who entered the stadium to the strains of the Samba classic, Brazil.
But politics were never far away. Earlier in the day, prior to the confrontation with police, there had been a much larger demonstration along the seaside in Copacabana with more than 3,000 people gathering to demand an end to efforts to impeach suspended Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff. She stayed away from the ceremony, tweeting that she was “sad not to be at the party ‘live and in colour’ but I will be following it, rooting for Brazil”. Her replacement, acting president Michel Temer declared the Games open to a chorus of boos that was only quelled by the strategic setting off of fireworks.
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee acknowledged the turmoil, albeit obliquely. “Our admiration for you is even greater because you managed this at a very difficult time in Brazilian history,” he told the crowd. “We have always believed in you.”
There was a stirring tribute to Kip Keino, the Kenyan distance runner and Olympic champion, who has spent his post-competition years caring for orphans and educating poor rural children. And the requisite athlete’s oath, promising to uphold “sportsmanship and honour”and committing to a Games “without doping and without drugs.”
On Friday, The Times newspaper provided yet another reminder of the gap between the Olympic movement’s ideals and its reality, revealing that the host Brazilian squad avoided doping tests for almost a month in the run-up to the Games. The World Anti-Doping Agency had suspended the official lab in Rio over concerns about testing procedures and the security of samples, and it appears that the Brazilians took that as an excuse to drop tools. Luis Horta, the former head of Portugal’s anti-doping agency who was advising the hosts in the run-up to the Games told the paper he was pressured to reduce testing. An allegation that Brazil’s Ministry of Sport and Doping Control Authority are hotly denying.
During the next 16 days, it will be up to the athletes to redeem South America’s first Olympics from the protests, shadows and worries. It’s a big job. Let’s hope they’re up to it.
The opening ceremonies at the 2016 Summer Olympics were the production of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. (Frank Gunn, CP)