RIO DE JANEIRO: Under cover of controversy and uncertainty, Brazil welcomed the world to Rio de Janeiro Friday night with a rapturous Opening Ceremony at Maracanã Stadium with a program aimed to highlight the country’s passion for life.
While little detail had leaked out about the ceremony early, a report of the role model Gisele Bundchen might play offended some — the rumor was she’d be mugged as part of the program — and the surprise that Brazilian soccer legend Pele will not be lighting the flame to open the games.
The designers of the Opening Ceremony wanted to focus more on the world and its cultures, they said in interviews ahead of the show, because they felt previous games opening ceremonies were too focused on the host country. That said, they covered the history of the country, from rainforest to the sprouting of civilization in several swift, brilliant production moves.
The ceremony opened with a countdown — as silver-clad dancers pounded on reflective pillows, and images of peace signs and fireworks exploded off the top of the stadium.
The fish-shaped center of the stadium opened with images of rolling waves and white stick puppets of crabs and worms making their away across the floor. As more of the creatures were walked across, a rainforest started taking shape in the center of the stadium, celebrating one of the best known parts of Brazil.
As the animals cleared, green spread across the stadium floor and the sound of birds, falling water and animal life brought an artificial rainforest to life. Performers joined the faux forest, many of whom are actual members of indigenous tribes, pulling giant, lit ropes.
From the rainforest, performers acting as immigrants from Portugal in the 1500s moved in, manning ships that rolled across the stadium’s floor. The image of explorers meeting the indigenous people of the country gave way to other Europeans immigrants and the slave trade moved into the country.
The ceremony noted the role of slavery in the countries development — although it was outlawed in Brazil in the late 1800s, it’s effects are still strongly felt there — with actors portraying the work of slaves as the sounds of chains and whips echoed throughout the stadium.
Rather than rely heavily on props, the ceremony extensively used projection systems, with performers hopping across “buildings” as modern cities slowly sprung up, with the set eventually turning into a representation of Sao Paolo, the biggest city in Brazil.
Performers constructed a wall on the floor, as a place appeared in the stadium and Brazil made its case for beating the Wright Brothers to the first flight, showing the plane seemingly flying out of the stadium and over the city — at least, that’s how it played out on television.
Bundchen crossed the stadium’s floor to the sounds of the “The Girl From Ipanema” before the show opening into a much more colorful, and loud, image of dance, music and art representing some of the poorer parts of the country that often are credited with some of its richest culture.
A large piece of the ceremony was dominated by a string of Brazilian singers and musicians, reflecting the rich musical culture of Brazil, as shapes and colors lit the stadium up like a giant dance club.
The organizers made it a point to spotlight the divide between rich and poor in the country, which has been the subject of much media coverage in the lead-up to the 2016 games, including questions of how so much money could be poured into a sporting event with poverty so deep and rampant there.
The ceremony was dominated by dancers and projections, at least partially because organizers, as they said, did not have the limitless funds some other countries have invested in flashy, streams of props seen in recent Olympics.
The centerpiece of the opening ceremony, what the organizers said they hoped to be a major message to the world, focused on global climate change. The shift in mood was noted by announcers saying “what a great party” as lighting and music slowly became ominous and an explanation of how the Earth’s temperature has changed in the last century.
Projections on the stadium floor included graphics on weather and maps showing Greenland’s ice caps melting and coastal areas, from Amsterdam to South Florida, sinking under rising sea levels.
Images of people planting gardens and farms were projected, giving way to references to each Olympic athlete planting a single seed — more than 11,000 seeds — introducing the parade of nations.
The parade of nations, the longest part of the ceremony, welcomed athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees. Among the nations was the much-anticipated team of 10 refugees, which the International Olympic Committee said was selected to be a symbol of hope for refugees around the world.
Michael Phelps led the U.S. Olympic team into the stadium, all 554 members of which were sporting much ballyhooed uniforms designed by Ralph Lauren. Phelps, who said earlier this week Rio was his “potential last Olympics,” was elected by the rest of the team to lead them into the ceremony.
At the end of a more than four-hour opening ceremony, Brazilian tennis player Gustavo Kuerten carried the Olympic flame into the stadium and long-distance runner Vanderlei Cordeiro lit the cauldron, officially opening the games.
The Rio Olympics have been shaded for weeks under the specter of worries about crime, criticism of venues and facilities, dirty water that could be spotted from space and the Zika outbreak. Political chaos even distracted from the start of the Olympic Games as an interim president was in the stands after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached this week.
In the last several weeks, officials have assured the world there was little risk of Zika becoming an issue for athletes, .
Police forces in the country have been significantly beefed up as the police force alone swelled to nearly 14,000 officers. Overall, there are expected to be 85,000 or so security forces around Rio, from police officers to the Brazilian Armed Forces.