That the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympic Games went without a hitch would have been a good enough result for many. There had been real fears that the ceremony would be overshadowed by political protests, security threats or crumbling infrastructure. But against the odds, Rio managed to put on a creative, passionate performance, at just a tenth of the cost of the London 2012 extravaganza.
In 2009, when Brazil was confirmed as host of the 2016 Summer Olympics, it was only just beginning to yield soft power; gaining favour on the international stage, based more on its attractions and persuasive abilities than on military interventions and sanctions (hard power). Within three years, Monocle magazine declared that “the sun is shining on brand Brazil”.
But today, the picture is quite different: Brazil is in the grips of its worst recession in 25 years, the elected president Dilma Rousseff has been removed from power by way of an ongoing impeachment process which has divided the nation and the international media’s criticisms of Olympic preparations have been relentless.
With a tight budget and a notable absence of visiting heads of state, there were doubts as to whether Rio could gain the positive international exposure, and the domestic feel-good moment, that the opening ceremonies in Beijing and London brought to their host countries. As it turns out, those doubts were unfounded.
The programme was choreographed to leave no space for Olympic sceptics and anti-government supporters in the audience, or on stage, to make their feelings known. Brazil’s incredibly vainglorious national anthem was rendered politically neutral, by being played on acoustic guitar and sung by the much-loved and sweet-sounding samba composer Paulinho da Viola.
The increasingly unpopular interim president Michel Temer hardly appeared on screen and spoke only for a matter of seconds to declare the ceremony open. He elicited fewer boos from the crowd than ousted president Rousseff had to bear at the opening of the World Cup in 2014.
The green games
The show itself began with a relatively politically inoffensive romp through Brazilian history, with eye-catching choreography and visual effects in keeping with the “creativity on a shoe-string” narrative touted by the organisers. There were a few sparkling musical interludes: the iconic international hit The Girl from Ipanema was performed by the composer Tom Jobim’s grandson, and acted out by supermodel Gisele Bündchen.
The more prosaic Brazilian funk hit Eu Só Quero Ser Feliz (I just want to be happy), ushered in the always tedious team parade – but not before the Olympic hosts shared a few home truths with the world.
Despite the relentless criticism of Rio’s failure to clean up the notoriously filthy Guanabara Bay, and despite the admittedly under-reported environmental disaster of epic proportion that took place in the mining region of Mariana only nine months ago, the organisers pulled off a coup of their own, by using the ceremony – and, by extension, the games themselves – to rebrand Brazil as green.
In a sudden change in tempo and mood, the dangers of global warming were depicted in images and numbers. It was a powerful illustration, not only of the impacts of climate change and the urgent need to do something about it, but also of Brazil’s determination to contribute to debates of international significance.
From the athletes planting seeds that will later be used to build a large park in Rio’s suburbs, to the deliberately low key and environmentally friendly (but still visually stunning) Olympic flame and cauldron, the ceremony was incomparably more convincing in its sustainability message than the earnest, or even cringe-worthy, opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup in São Paulo.
Many hearts will have sunk when Pelé pulled out hours before the ceremony started due to ill health. Although “the King” never competed in any Olympic Games, the IOC named him Athlete of the Century in 1999. And given that he’s also still the most recognised Brazilian on earth, he’s one of the country’s key soft-power assets.
But in a surprise and incredibly moving twist, the cauldron was lit by Brazilian Olympic unsung hero Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima. Marathon runner Vanderlei was attacked by a deranged spectator at the Athens Olympics in 2004, dropping from first place to finish with the bronze medal. His gracious sportsmanship in freak defeat was acknowledged at the time by the IOC, and again last night, in what was a particularly poignant moment of the ceremony.
And just as we thought that was our lot in this modest but effective ceremony, out come the samba schools (drummers and dancers). Off went the fireworks, as Brazil confirmed once again that it knows how to throw a good party – even on a shoestring budget, in times of adversity. Now, the nation must convince the international press to portray the passion, creativity and meaningful political commentary of the ceremony, rather than rehashing old – if painfully true – tales of woe.