From Gisele to global warming, Rio delivers its 'opening ceremony with a difference'

Let the Games begin!

A view of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

– Niall Kelly reports from the Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro

THE MARACANÃ OCCUPIES a conflicted place in Brazil’s rich sporting tradition.

Iconic, historic and, at the same time, the site of one of the country’s indelible moments of shame: a shock defeat to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup final, a memory so devastating that it even deserves its own word. Maracanazo.

So maybe this was the perfect place to host the opening ceremony for an Olympic Games which, before the first medal is even handed out, has already divided Brazilian society and reiterated the gulf between the haves and the have nots.

As the world’s biggest sporting party rolls into their town, Cariocas, and Brazilians more generally, have to reconcile that with the political and economic turmoil that still rages around them. The two — the Olympics and the unrest — are by no means unrelated.

Michel Temer, Brazil’s interim president for the past three months while Dilma Roussef is suspended pending an impeachment trial, knew better than to risk the wrath of those who came to start the party. According to local media reports, he asked not to be introduced to the crowd; the chorus of boos that greeted him when he did speak later in the evening showed that to be a shrewd move. Perhaps, given everything that has unfolded in recent weeks, IOC President Thomas Bach might have followed suit.

A view of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

A view of the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

This was never going to match the scale and scope of Danny Boyle’s London extravaganza. How distasteful it would have been, given the massive cost overruns that have already been incurred in staging the Games, if anything close to the £30 million budget of four years ago was spent again here.

Instead this was billed as an opening ceremony with a difference, executed at a fraction of the cost, some clever creativity introduced where the extra money could not be.

“We want to change some paradigms of the Olympic ceremonies,” wrote the creative team, which included City of God director Fernando Meirelles.

We replaced the high-tech approach, the dependence on major electronic and mechatronic effects with an analogue inventiveness, making the most of the low-tech spirit, the richness of Brazilian popular culture and the energy and passion of thousands of volunteers.

“We are planning a big party,” they promised, and they didn’t disappoint, the 70,000-strong crowd taking their cue for a singalong from the opening bars of Gilberto Gil’s ‘Aquele Abraco’.

History, culture and tradition are the centrepiece of any opening ceremony and, as the first South American country to host the Games, Brazil seized that opportunity with some progressive flourishes. Among the volunteers who led the athletes into the arena were five transgender people, “a gesture in favour of tolerance”.

The ceremony told a story of colonisation, immigration, and modernisation, played out on an impressive digital light projection.

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Gisele Bundchen Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Paddy Barnes leads Team Ireland out at the Opening Ceremony Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

Much has already been made of the legacy that these Games will leave behind for Brazil and for Rio, or the lack thereof. Many will never feel any positive benefit once the five-ring circus leaves town but this ceremony planted the seed of a different narrative, tackling climate change and global warming.

Entering the arena, the 11,000 athletes representing 205 countries, as well as the independent and refugee athlete delegations, were given a seed and soil-filled cartridge to plant a tree which will be used to form an Athletes’ Forest in Rio’s Deodoro suburb.

Later, the traditional Olympic cauldron was swapped out for a smaller, low-emission, design.

But the ceremony, which spanned over four hours, was not all posturing and pontificating. There was plenty of time to party.

To the iconic soundtrack of Tom Jobin’s ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, Gisele Bundchen took up the eponymous role, commanding the entire crowd as she stepped, lit only by a single beam, from one end of the stadium to the other. A controversial scene, interpreted by some as representing her mugging at the hands of a Rio youth, did not make the final cut.

Bossa, funk, and favela-inspired parkour and breakdancing took hold before Brazil’s ‘dancing anthem’, Pais Tropical, brought the entire crowd to their feet.

But it was through the athletes, past and present, that this ceremony truly shone and reminded us why, for all the doom and gloom that hangs over the beginning of these Games, for every dirty athlete that walked side-by-side with clean ones, Rio 2016 will still have the capacity to inspire and deliver some of the most beautiful human moments.

With the exception of the host team, the biggest reception of the night was reserved for the Olympic Refugees, 10 athletes who have overcome myriad adversity just to make it to this point. Their presence alone on this great sporting stage spoke volumes.

The final act fell to a man well-known to Irish sports fans, even if not by name. Twelve years ago, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima was on course to win marathon gold when a laicised Irish priest, Fr Neil Horan, stepped out onto the middle of the road and bundled him from the course.

De Lima recovered sufficiently to take bronze but never won the gold that he deserved. Tonight, it was his honour to light the Olympic flame in his home country, a poignant moment that epitomises all that can be good about the next 16 days.

Now — let the Games begin.

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Dia dhaoibh! Paddy Barnes leads Team Ireland into the Rio 2016 Olympic Games

About the author:

Niall Kelly

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