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Rio rises to occasion with Opening Ceremonies full of sizzle

RIO DE JANEIRO – Expectations were not terribly high for the Opening Ceremonies this time around. The leadup to these Olympics had been an unrelenting trail of woe, a raft of problems ranging from the Zika virus to polluted waters to a staggering economy and an impeached president who didn’t dare to attend.

The ominious signs continued right up the 8 p.m. start on Friday night. There were reports that soccer legend Pele was unavailable due to poor health. So much for the speculation that Brazil’s greatest sporting legend might light the Olympic flame.

Media bus drivers struggled to find their way to the iconic Maracana Stadium several hours before the Opening. Protesters were tear gassed outside the stadium an hour or two before the Ceremonies got under way.

You had to wonder if some unimagined catastrophe was destined to occur, validating the grim predictions. If Pats-hating Bills fans needed a further omen, Brazilian-born super model Gisele Bundchen – also known as Mrs. Tom Brady – was slated to have a prominent role in the show.

I certainly wasn’t expecting the Rio ceremony to approach those of China or London, or even Sochi two years back. I’ve given up comparing these Openings long ago, but there seemed no way it could hope to measure up.

Simple competence would suffice.

But like the inflated uproar over the Zika virus, the fears proved unfounded. Rio came through with a fabulous Opening, an inventive and thrilling show that highlighted the playful, creative nature of the Brazilian people.

They did it on the cheap, too, with a budget that reportedly came in at one-tenth of London’s and 5 percent of what the Chinese invested in their incredible summer Opening in 2008.

Rio was committed to putting on a stunning but sensible show, worthy of its national character but without the elaborate technical effects that have become commonplace in recent Games. Maybe the fact the budget was slashed along the way was a factor, but the party came off in the end.

Creative director Fernando Meirelles, a filmaker best known for “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener,” wanted the Rio ceremony to be creative and artistic, but spare. Meirelles said he would be “ashamed” to spend huge sums of money in a nation with a struggling economy and desperate for better schools and sanitation. He said the modest approach “makes sense for Brazil.”

They gave the world a spectacle that was happy and profound, and centered on one simple, essential theme: The need to honor the environment and take care of the precious planet on which we live. Regardless of the cost or the technical merit, could there be any more important message?

I loved it. Opening Ceremonies have become like Tragically Hip concerts for me. I’ve never seen a bad one and love them all. Each is special and distinctive in its own way and it’s pointless to rank them.

Rio touched on some popular themes from recent Openings. They staged a “Pindorama,” a recreation of the beginning of life. They celebrated children, bringing out 50 young athletes chosen from various sporting discplines around the country.

They honored the country’s indigenous groups and the rich culture that originates in the favelas, or slums. They paid tribute to empowered black women and their contributions to Brazilian culture.

The “Metropolis” segment highlighted Rio’s emergence as a great modern city, the largest on the continent of South America. They gave a nod to the noted Brazilian inventor, Alberto Santos-Dumont, and his 14BIS airplane that flew for about 200 feet in 1906.

The music was sensational, a pounding, infectious beat that carried you through to the end. The crowd roared and sang along in Portuguese when Bundchen strode across the stadium toward an image of the great composer, Tom Jobim, who gave life to bossa nova, while Jobim’s grandson played “Girl From Ipanema” on the piano.

Renowned local actress Regina Case, an advocate for diversity, urged the crowd to “look for similarities and celebrate differences” before leading them in a rousing rendition of “Tropical Nation” while 1,500 dancers cavorted about the stadium floor and the audience joined in.

But the overriding theme was concern for the environment, an admonition that we must heed science’s warnings and stop living and consuming as we have in the past. They had models that represented rising world temperatures, melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels.

Evidently, the people who put on this dazzling show do not believe that global warming is some hoax.

The Rio folks did something unprecedented in the Opening Ceremonies. They gave every athlete a seed and a soil cartridge to plant a native Brazilian tree in mirrored towers on the stage. Brazil has the greatest diversity of trees on the planet, and the world’s largest rain forest.

Those seeds will leave a legacy to Rio in form of 11,000 trees of 207 species – one for each national delegation – in the city’s Radical Park in Deodoro. The seeds then opened to form the five Olympic rings, all in green instead of the typical colors.

After the Parade of Nations and the speeches and official opening of the Games, all that remained was the traditional lighting of the Olympic cauldron. The lighting was intentionally small to symbolize the need to reduce warming caused by fossil fuels and greenhouse gases.

Rio’s message to the world was clear. We need to take care of the environment and treasure the planet we live on. Considering the problems they have with sanitation and polluted waters, it was a courageous statement, one they know can start with their own country.

In the end, a host with a modest budget and low expectations put on a very nice show. After months of angst and doubt, they got off to an inspiring start. Maybe there’s hope for these Olympics, after all.


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