Published On: August 9, 2016

Rio Welcomes the World

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We did it! That’s what creative director Fernando Meirelles must be thinking with the opening ceremonies of the Rio 2016 Olympics behind us. The evening came off without a hitch, a minor miracle considering how much of everyday life is mired in difficulty these days in Brazil.

Once again, not surprisingly, Brazil surprised us. Shackled by its worst recession in decades, the country pulled off a touching and graceful show with only half the budget of London’s opening in 2012. The spectacle combined artistic flair with political daring and pulsing sensuality in a way that only exists in Brazil — the opening ceremony was turned into a giant street party.

The evening featured everything a Brazilian could hope for – from the favorite entertainment, fireworks, to the favorite female, Gisele Bundchen. Despite dire warnings from the media, all the venues were finished on time, setting the stage for an opening with a distinctly South American feel – mountains of singing and dancing from Brazil’s most famous performers, and even an appearance by the twelve samba schools of Rio, the centerpiece of every February’s Carnival festivities.


The backdrop to the festivities were with former president Lula, who had secured the rights to South America’s first Olympics. Today he’s facing criminal charges and was too nervous to attend Friday’s opening ceremony for security reasons. Brazil’s most famous stadium, Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro, invited the greatest 11,000 athletes from every corner of the globe. Brazilians have the opportunity to witness sports they’ve never seen, like competitive kayaking and women’s rugby.

Gorgeous new stadiums were built for cycling and tennis and synchronized diving and gymnastics. Even the unused World Cup stadium in Brasília got its chance in the limelight, hosting the Seleção Brasileira, the national football team, while the field at Maracanã is prepared for play after the opening ceremonies. The team, lead by captain Neymar, is seeking its first Olympic gold after taking the silver in London in 2012, but the women’s team has a better shot at success.


During the opening ceremonies on Friday night, we shouldn’t have been surprised to see Gisele, the world’s richest model, command the entire stadium alone. The 70 thousand plus spectators welcomed her like a heroine, as she was selected to embody the image of the “Girl from Ipanema” the song the world most often associates with Rio. To add a touch of musical history to the spectacle, the Tom Jobim song was performed by the songwriter’s grandson, Daniel Jobim, as Gisele single-handedly engaged the Olympic-sized runway.

While women are a huge highlight of Olympic sports, modeling has yet to become an Olympic event. Nevertheless, Gisele said she was deeply honored to appear. Like the other luminaries who performed, including Brazil’s most internationally famous musicians, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Gisele wasn’t paid for her appearance. In the spirit of an Olympic champion, she was balanced with poise, and smiling, as she strut the entire field in a sparkling golden dress. There wasn’t a hint of sadness in her smile to mark the end of her runway career on the longest catwalk ever – 150 meters (500 feet). Later, in keeping with her homegrown roots, she was in the stands with the crowd enjoying the parade of athletes. A reporter for the Toronto Star observed, “Gisele’s majestic, confident final catwalk is one of the most awe-inspiring things any country could conjure.”


The creative team behind the opening ceremonies was in fine form executing an evening of song and dance on a reduced budget. Fernando Mireilles, one of Brazil’s most successful film directors, Andrucha Waddington, and Daniela Thomas were in charge of the show. Mireilles revealed his desire to pay tribute to the 300,000 native Indians of 305 ethnicities in Brazil who speak 274 languages.

The nonstop dancing was the responsibility of the veteran Brazilian choreographer Deborah Colker. Ms. Colker choreographed the 114 professional dancers and 3,000 volunteers, aided by her previous experience with Cirque du Soleil and Rio’s samba schools. She said about the opening ceremony, “The most important thing is the possibility to mix styles and ideas and aesthetics, dance and music and energy. We are a new country, with contemporary ideas, not just what foreign people think about Brazil: pretty women and football. Brazil is this and so many other things. It is an amazing place for contemporary dance and music and film and fashion and art.”

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The celebration of music and dance included everyone from Brazilian legends to MC Soffia, a 12-year-old rapper from São Paulo’s slums. The crowd sang along with Brazilian artists Ludmilla, Cristian Do Passinho, Lelezinha, Elza Soares, Marcelo D2, and Karol Conka, a rapper from Curitiba. Big-screen TVs flashed the lyrics in Portuguese and dozens of other languages.

The heart and soul of Brazil was on display Friday evening in everything from the samba schools of Carnival to the rooftop fireworks that seemed to last through the entire ceremony. As anyone who has lived in Brazil knows, if there’s a Brazilian style of celebration, it’s music and fireworks.

The opening ceremony also included a tribute to Alberto Santos-Dumont, Brazil’s first pilot. A replica of his plane, the 14 bis, flew out through the roof opening of Maracanã stadium. Santos-Dumont is credited by Brazilians and Europe as having designed and flown the first airplane in 1906 in France. Most Americans, of course, had never heard of him before Friday, so they were regaled with a history lesson.

Americans ready with their Wikipedia were quick to point out that the Wright Brothers flew their Kitty Hawk plane three years earlier in 1903. Brazilian historians, however, believe that the Wright Brothers plane was nothing more than a glider and required strong winds to get off the ground. (The debate rests on which definition of “self-sustaining flight” is used.) Brazilians obviously take France’s word for it, and have no interest in discussing the Wright Brothers.

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The most enlightening history lessons of the evening came from the highlighting of Japanese immigration, Brazil’s role in the saga of slavery, and the determination to fight global warming. Fernanda Montenegro, Brazil’s most famous living film star, and Judi Dench read from Nausea and the Flower, a 1945 poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, which highlights the depths of nature’s destruction but ends on a positive note. Additionally, all the Olympic athletes were given a seed, which they planted in small cups waiting on the field. The ten thousand seeds will be planted in the Athletes Forest in an effort to combat global climate change.

The spectacle of the evening’s message proved that while Brazil’s current political situation may be unstable, it’s clear where the country’s heart lies – in racial diversity and the preservation of the environment and Brazil’s indigenous tribes.

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The traditional parade of athletes mirrored previous Olympics, with the exception that the teams were alphabetized by their names in Portuguese, thus allowing the US to appear closer to the beginning, led by Michael Phelps, in his first appearance at an opening ceremony. This being his fifth Olympics, Phelps was chosen as the captain of the American team. Additional flag bearers included tennis stars Rafael Nadal (Spain), Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark), and Andy Murray (Great Britain).

As always, the host country comes last in the parade, and Brazil was led by pentathlete Yane Marques. Each country was introduced with its name attached to a bicycle. In a show of gender equality, the Brazil team’s bicycle was ridden by Lea T., the country’s most famous transgender model. Then the home nation danced in, a 469-athlete samba line bouncing along to the best opening-ceremony music any nation has offered, Aquarela do Brasil.

Team Brazil

Team Brazil

There is no event imaginable that brings together every country on Earth. Maracanã Stadium welcomed athletes from 205 countries in Friday night’s extravaganza, with only Kuwait missing. The Nigerian football team had a logistics problem and got stranded in Africa until Delta Airlines offered them a free flight to Rio.

Kosovo sent its first ever team, but the greatest reverence went to one of the smallest teams, a group of ten athletes known as the Refugee Team, who were greeted with a standing ovation as the final team to enter just before Brazil. The Refugee Team consisted of 10 athletes, six men and four women, who all fled violence in their countries. Pope Francis sent a letter to the Refugee Team, praising the “courage and strength” of its members.

One of the refugee athletes, Yusra Mardini, a swimmer, fled war-torn Syria. She fled Syria with her sister and made it to Turkey; they were then smuggled to Greece in a dinghy meant to hold six people. The dinghy was jammed with 18 people, and it began to sink en route from Turkey to Greece. Yusra and her sister, who is also a swimmer, jumped into the sea to keep it from sinking. It took 3 ½ hours for Yusra and her sister to pull the boat to safety on the island of Lesbos in Greece.

Yusra Mardini, Syrian refugee

Yusra Mardini, Syrian refugee

Following the parade were speeches by the head of the Rio Olympics Committee, Carlos Nuzman, as well as the head of the IOC, and a special tribute to Kipchoge Keino, two-time Olympic gold medalist, for his work with children in his native Kenya. Messages of peace were written on the kites carried by children as they ran with Keino up to the podium.

Despite Brazil’s aversion to long-term planning, the Opening Ceremony had clearly been rehearsed for months. The only exception may have been the final moments when the Olympic torch, carried from Greece, arrived in Maracanã stadium. It entered held by Guga (Gustavo Kuerten), Brazil’s greatest tennis legend. Most people were expecting Pelé to carry the torch, but he had declined at the last minute due to a leg injury.

Guga entered with the torch and ran a few hundred meters, stopping before reaching the steps to pass the torch to Brazilian basketball silver medalist Hortência, who then handed it off to the final honoree – Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima. Cordeiro, as all Brazilians remember from the 2004 Olympics in Athens, finished third in the marathon after being tackled by a spectator and pushed into the crowd. At the time he was grabbed, Vanderlei was in first place in the marathon, and it appeared he would win. He was tackled by an eccentric, defrocked Irish priest, who has a history of interrupting sporting events in the name of Jesus. Since his tackling in 2004, the Irishman has written two letters of apology to Vanderlei.

After performing the flaming duty, Vanderlei admitted he found out he would be given the opening ceremony’s highest honor on Friday, just hours before the event. He told reporters this story early Saturday morning, around 1:30 am, still dressed in his opening ceremony gear, smiling and waving to passers-by, at a gas station where he was buying beer to celebrate.


Vanderlei Cordeiro wins

In keeping with the theme of environmental preservation, the Olympic cauldron, as it was lit, initiated a spectacular kinetic sculpture symbolizing the sun. The sculpture was designed by American artist Anthony Howe. A smaller flame is being utilized than previous Olympic games to avoid unnecessary pollution from the burning gas. One journalist at the ceremony noted: “Rio’s flame may be the most spectacular visual from the games yet.”

I believe that all the boasts made by the media about the “billions” of TV viewers for the opening ceremony must be true. I know this because when I woke up Saturday morning and checked my email, there were no messages, not even spam. On Friday night, the world was too excited watching the festivities to send me any messages.

Carlos Nuzman, president of Rio’s Olympic organizing committee, said it all when he addressed the crowd: “The best place in the world is here, now.”

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