Rio de Janeiro – Rio de Janeiro opened South America’s first-ever Olympic Games on Friday with a pared-down ceremony that put the environment to the forefront and celebrated Brazil’s rich and diverse culture.
Hampered by budget cuts enforced by an economic crisis gripping the world’s fifth-biggest country, Rio eschewed the high-end production of previous opening ceremonies yet still managed to delight a packed crowd of 78,000 at Maracana Stadium with a carnival of lights, music and dancing.
“With the Olympic Games as a catalyst, you have achieved in just seven years what generations before you could only dream of,” said International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach. “You have transformed the wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro into a modern metropolis and made it even more beautiful.”
Under the gaze of the city’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, former marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lit an eco-friendly Olympic cauldron designed to draw attention to the damage caused by fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.
Cordeiro was leading the 2004 Olympic marathon when he was tackled by a spectator and missed out on a gold medal.
The green theme was extended by the parade of over 10,000 athletes entering the stadium, with each given a seed and cartridge of soil to be planted to form an “athlete’s forest” at one of the competition venues.
Brazilian Interim President Michel Temer declared the 31st Olympiad open, becoming the first acting leader to preside over proceedings and prompting boos from the crowd in a country still deeply divided by impeachment proceedings taking place against suspended President Dilma Rousseff.
Bach delivered a speech that made no explicit mention of a Russian doping scandal that rocked the IOC on the eve of the games, drawing attention instead to a 10-athlete refugee team competing in Rio under the Olympic flag.
“We are living in a world where selfishness is gaining ground,” said the German, a former Olympic champion fencer. “Where certain people claim to be superior to others.
“Here is our Olympic answer: Dear refugee athletes, you are sending a message of hope to all the many millions of refugees around the globe. You had to flee from your homes because of violence, hunger or just because you were different. Now, with your great talent and human spirit, you are making a great contribution to society.”
Rio 2016 Committee president Carlos Nuzman sounded a triumphant note after a seven-year buildup to the games that was plagued by problems, including rising crime, health scares, pollution worries and severe financial hardship.
“I’m talking to the whole planet,” said Nuzman, a former volleyball player who competed at the 1964 Tokyo Games.
“Five continents, billions of people. We welcome you to Rio, the Olympic city. Here we stand to deliver history. I’m the proudest man alive. I’m proud of my city, my country.
“We are opening the Olympic experience to new regions of the world. Rio is proud to be the Olympic capital of the world, enlightened by the transformation that we promised and we delivered. A job that we could only finish with the help of our people.”
Japan’s 142-strong delegation was led by flag bearer Keisuke Ushiro, a 30-year-old decathlete competing in his second Olympics.
“It’s a great honor,” Ushiro said before the ceremony. “I want to do my best to lead the team out in style at the opening ceremony. I want to show what I am capable of doing, when it comes to both carrying the flag and competing in my event.”
Russia was threatened with blanket expulsion just weeks before the start of the games after a World Anti-Doping Agency investigation revealed state-sponsored doping on a massive scale.
The IOC decided instead to delegate responsibility to each sport’s international federation, and the 271 Russian athletes that avoided suspension put on a brave face as they marched around the stadium.
“It was a difficult situation,” said Russia’s flag bearer, volleyball player Sergei Tetyukin. “We were ready for the worst. The whole Russian team could have been banned, but there were reasonable people that took the right decisions.”
The opening ceremony charted Brazil’s roots from forest-covered jungle to modern industrial nation, taking in the first contact with Europeans and acknowledging its history of African slavery that lasted almost 400 years.
The show also paid tribute to the arrival of Japanese immigrants in the 20th century. Brazil has the largest population of people of Japanese descent in the world.
The country’s close relationship with song and dance was also well represented, with singer Paulinho da Viola crooning a delicate acoustic version of Brazil’s national anthem, and bossa nova standard “The Girl From Ipanema” drawing a huge cheer from the crowd.
Supermodel Gisele Bundchen added further glamour to the occasion, but the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for the entrance of the Brazilian team.
“It’s wonderful,” said sailor Robert Scheidt. “Walking into a stadium in the opening ceremony is a magical moment. To do it in Maracana, in Brazil, and feel all that energy, is breathtaking.”