RIO DE JANIERO — It’s the phrase that’s uttered at the start of every Olympics and consists of just four little words — “Let the Games begin.” But Friday night, even more than usual, they felt like four of the most potent words in the vocabulary of sports, because of what they signaled.
Finally, blessedly, and not a moment too soon for Rio de Janeiro, its 2016 Summer Olympic Games have been officially handed off to the athletes now — not the stumbling organizers and their bumbling contractors, not the IOC fat cats who are too busy picking shrimp cocktail from their teeth to ban all the drug cheats. Or the rock-throwing protesters that bedeviled the running of Brazil’s Olympic torch relay and showed up by the hundreds again Friday night, prompting security forces to disperse them with tear gas less than a mile from where teams from a record 207 nations marched onto the floor of Maracana Stadium to take part in a rousing Opening Ceremony.
Despite down-to-the-bone budget cuts that left producers of last night’s show joking “We cried — in fear” as they studied more extravagantly funded opening ceremonies, the first Olympic Games ever held in South America kicked off with a joyous show. It delivered on its planners’ promise to make up for their relatively modest budget with ingenuity, energy, stirring samples of some of the country’s best indigenous music, and some light-hearted touches that were meant to acknowledge life may not be perfect in Brazil, but there’s a lot to love and marvel about here if you suspend judgement and lean in closely enough.
From Brazilian recording star Luiz Melodia’s rendition of “Aquele Abraco,” the “song of farewell” penned by his legendary countryman Gilberto Gil, to the show’s evocation of Brazil’s ethnic diversity and status as “the biggest garden on the planet” (this is the home of the Amazon rainforest, after all), the ceremony gave these Games an unmistakable sense of time and place.
There were symbolic pleas for peace and tolerance, a nod to world events beyond Brazil. There were beat-driven Samba, funk carioca, and Bossa Nova songs that pulled people to their feet and had them dancing in place. In the wide-open spirit of Carnival, Brazil’s most famous supermodel (Gisele Bundchen) and its most famous transsexual model (Lea T) took star turns. There was a street-dancing performance meant to evoke the art that springs from the miserably poor tin-roofed favelas that go staggering up the hills and valleys around Rio like makeshift Lego cities, one red-blocked unit stacked atop another; the segment was intended it to be a reminder that beauty and wonder live even in the most unlikeliest and challenging places.
Pele, now 75 years old and still the most famous sports star this soccer-crazed country has produced, grew up in one such slum. His absence here Friday because of ill health was felt.
But hundreds of other notable athletes did show. Swimmer Michael Phelps, the 22-time Olympic medalist, carried the flag for the American team, which arrived earlier in the lineup than usual because Estados Unidos is the Portuguese spelling of United States. The first-ever Refugee Team, which is comprised this year of 10 athletes from strife-torn South Sudan, Syria, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, marched in under the five-ring Olympic flag. Sprinter Etimoni Timuani, the only athlete from the South Pacific nation of Tuvalu, strode in rocking a ribboned sarong, the Austrians wore lederhosen, the Micronesian team wore head wreaths that appeared woven from palm fronds, and China’s team acknowledged their hosts by waving little Brazilian flags as well as their own.
Brazilians have understandably been of two minds about hosting these Olympics because of the economic crises and political upheaval that have developed here since the IOC awarded Rio these Games in 2008. Times were far better then. They’re more fractious now. Crime has spiked. The Zika virus remains a concern. Promises that the Games would leave an improved infrastructure and cleaned-up waterways around Rio have gone unkept, making the estimated $4.6 billion price of these Olympics (it spikes to $20 billion counting infrastructure costs) feel unconscionable to many.
Brazil also has two sitting presidents at the moment because one, Dilma Rousseff, is scheduled to go to trial at the end of this month in impeachment proceedings, which opened the way for the other — interim pick Michel Temer — to preside Friday night.
Rio Games open with glitz, global and … Gisele
Rio de Janiero welcomed the world to the first Olympic Games in South America with a message: Let’s take better care of our planet.
(The opening ceremony producers denied at their pre-show press conference Thursday that they’d been told to create some sound effects to play if Temer was booed. Which he was, when he took the podium to declare the Games open.)
IOC president Thomas Bach acknowledged earlier this week that the road to the Rio Games had been “long and testing,” and the preparations were “challenging.”
In one last flourish the Olympic flame was brought into Maracana Stadium by Brazilain tennis champion Gustavo Keurten, handed off to retired basketball star Hortencia Macari to Vanderleri Cordeiro de Lima, the marathoner who lost gold when he was attacked during the 2004 Summmer Games. He lit the cauldron.
“We never give up, we never give up,” Rio Organizing Committee president Carlos Nuzman said in a stem winder of a speech to the crowd. “Let’s stay together when differences challenge us.”
Much of Brazil’s troubled backstory will temporarily fade at least a bit into the background at daybreak Saturday, when the competitions begin in earnest with 16 sports contested and seven gold medals there to be won. Over the next 16 days, the conversation will turn more to whether sprinter Usain Bolt can possibly win again, or Marta can lead Brazil’s women’s team to a gold medal? Would huge gold medal hauls by American gymnast Simone Biles and multi-event U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky justify the talk that they already deserve to be placed among their sports’ greats?
The best antidote for nearly everything that ails the Olympic Games has always been the transcendental contributions of the athletes themselves. There are roughly 10,500 of them here. Like Rio itself, they reliably provoke wonder. And they sure as hell know how to put on a show.