RIO DE JANEIRO – With the sound of crashing waves and smooth bossa nova, the Summer Games kicked off Friday night with an earthy, musical celebration of Brazilian culture, a rainbow-colored dance party that highlighted the glories and tragedies of South America’s largest nation.
The four-hour Opening Ceremonies had a gutted budget but a soaring feel as the stadium in this seaside city pulsed with lights, fireworks, circus-like acrobatics and a samba singalong that embraced the nation’s partying style.
The celebration didn’t dwell on Brazil’s recent upheaval – its worst recession in decades, and the suspension of its president, Dilma Rousseff, who faces an impeachment trial, probably during the Olympics. But the nation’s troubles intruded anyway. When the acting president, Michel Temer, formally declared the continent’s first-ever Olympic Games open, his words were quickly drowned out with boos.
The ceremony took the long view, back to the creation of Earth, from the first molecules and the forest primeval, to send a warning about climate change and the need to protect the natural wonders that Brazil once had in abundance. There were ominous moments from the darker side of Brazilian history, from slavery to the creation of mega-cities, and lectures about carbon levels, the Earth’s temperature and protecting the environment.
This was Rio de Janeiro, however, so the warning was leavened with furry dancing animal figures and a kaleidoscope of revelers in colored wigs. As the Brazilian actress Regina Casé, who warmed up the tens of thousands of fans at Maracana stadium, put it: “Here in Brazil, we like to party.”
The ceremony sought to pump the brakes on the high-tech one-upmanship that has come to define the opening of the Games, from Beijing to London to Sochi. The Brazilians went for organic and authentic, looking to nature and their own cool style. Besides a light show with a simulated jungle made by hundreds of floor-to-ceiling twisty elastic bands, their presentation didn’t rely on expensive mechanical audacities; it resorted to what the program described as an “analogue inventiveness.”
This played to the nation’s strengths. Brazil has natural beauty in reserve: the world’s largest rain forest, the Amazon, and the white sands of Copacabana beach. Rio de Janeiro is a city that loves to be outside: demonstrated by women skateboarding on the Ipanema beachfront and men sharing icy beers at plastic sidewalk tables. Rio does not walk, it cruises, a backbeat floating in the warm air, needing nothing but shorts and flip-flops.
But these scaled-back festivities were also dictated by the grim state of Brazilian finances; the Rio de Janeiro state government recently declared an “economic calamity.” Coming two years after the most expensive Olympics ever-the $50 billion Winter Games in Sochi, Russia – Brazil didn’t have that money to spend. Its fortunes have plunged since it won the bid for the Games in 2009, its economy dragged down by slumping oil prices and allegations of colossal corruption.
For Brazilians, this is an austerity Olympics – except in one way. Even in a country without a history of extremist attacks, 88,000 soldiers are patrolling Rio, twice the number deployed in London four years ago.
For the opening ceremonies, the budget available was a fraction of that for earlier Games. One of the creators of the show, filmmaker Fernando Meirelles, who directed the Oscar-nominated “City of God,” had said his ambitions were forced to shrink along with the vanishing budget: What began as more than $100 million was cut in half, a show of 3,000 people sliced to 700.
That lesser ambition fit well with the frustrated mood in many parts of Brazil. Temer, the acting president, holds power while the nation awaits an impeachment vote against Rousseff, who did not attend the ceremony.
Similarly, when Carlos Nuzman, a former Brazilian volleyball player who leads the Rio 2016 Committee, mentioned the Brazilian government and the Rio transformation that was “promised and delivered,” boos also rang out across the stadium.
Mostly, though, the ceremony looked beyond the country’s current troubles. Nature was a central theme. After a brief lesson by the host on how the crowd could make rain forest sounds with its hands and hoot like monkeys and birds, the show began with a creation-of-life story, with video projections of waves, smoke, and creatures crawling from the sea. The squawk of birds shifted into more ominous sounds as the ceremony touched on the darker parts of the nation’s history.
Large wooden wheels, powered by performers wearing shackles, depicted the arrival of enslaved Africans 400 years ago in Brazil, followed by the arrival of the Portuguese conquistadors. The “forest” on the floor of Maracana stadium was replaced by geometric shapes, meant to represent sugar cane fields and plantations. But the mood soon soared, and the stadium floor was again transformed – this time, with blocks rising, taking the form of skyscrapers, in an homage to the growth of Brazilian cities.
The show really found its mojo when Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen cat-walked solo the length of the stadium to the tune of “The Girl from Ipanema,” what she had called “the longest runway I have ever been on.” The festivities livened into hip-hop dance routines and an everybody-join-in dance party.
The Olympic delegations marched out beginning with Greece. The athletes who paraded into the stadium, pumping fists and holding smartphones, represented 206 nations in almost as many colors and styles. Athletes from Cameroon wore traditional flowing robes, those from communist-led Cuba had outfits fashioned by a French luxury footwear designer; those from Australia wore seersuckers and shorts, as if preparing for an afternoon of yachting. The team from Tonga was led by an oiled-up, shirtless taekwondo athlete who carried the flag.
The U.S. athletes came out at 9:30 p.m. wearing white pants, blue blazers and striped shirts, led by superstar swimmer Michael Phelps. Secretary of State John Kerry, the most senior American official in attendance, held his cellphone high to record the scene.
One of the biggest roars of the night came for a 10-member team of refugees, a group competing for the first time in the Olympics. That roar only amplified when the final team- the Brazilians – emerged.
Many people had expected the Olympic flame to be lit by 75-year-old soccer legend Pelé, but he said that he would not participate in the ceremony because of his health. Instead, that honor went to Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, a Brazilian former marathoner who won a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
The show was in many ways a respite from a drumbeat of bad news. Rio’s preparations for the Games were marked by endless trouble: sluggish venue construction, rising crime and coastal waters so polluted that Olympic swimmers were advised to avoid swallowing even a few spoonfuls.
The last few days have been full of demonstrations, an anti-Olympics backlash driven by people who felt the time was not right to spend money on sports. Protesters blocked the torch’s progress as it made its way around the country and attempted to douse it with fire extinguishers and buckets of water; in a few cases they were met by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Just hours before the Opening Ceremonies, security forces fired tear gas and a percussion grenade after young people set fire to a Brazilian flag and a Rio 2016 volunteer’s T-shirt and tried to get close to the stadium. One man was arrested. Earlier in the day, a few thousand protesters marched along the Copacabana seafront in red shirts. Their ire was aimed at both Temer and the Olympics.
“We don’t have the conditions to receive the Games,” said Leonardo Ladeira, a 22-year-old protester. “At this moment it is a chaotic activity.”
But, for one night at least, Rio was basking in what it does best. This is a country expert in revelry, which every year fills its streets with dancing, stranger-kissing, inebriated glee at Carnival.
The drumming and samba, the costumes and colors, the models and athletes: Brazil had been preparing for these Opening Ceremonies its whole life.
Brazilians who had been down on the Olympic Games for weeks flocked to social media to praise the Opening Ceremonies.
“Like, I’m not a patriot, but damn, this opening is beautiful,” tweeted one, Kleo Rocha.
Another Brazilian, calling herself just Isabelle, tweeted: “Brazil could have its problems but seeing things like this opening, my pride swells to say: I AM BRAZILIAN.”
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Harlan reported from Washington. The Washington Post’s Dom Phillips, Adam Kilgore and Rick Maese in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.