The 31st Olympics, the first to be held in South America, formally opened with a sparkling ceremony drawn from Brazil’s vibrantly diverse culture and dedicated to its history and the environment and followed by a colourful procession of the world’s leading athletes, many in traditional garb, at the Macarana stadium here.
The huge statue of Christ the Redeemer, that dominates the skyline of the Brazilian capital and where the Olympic torch was lit at dawn, was specially lit up ahead of the opening ceremony starting at 8 p.m. local time (4.30 a.m. IST). However, legendary footballer Pele, who was widely expected to light the Olympic cauldron, pulled out a few hours before due to ill-health.
The ceremony, which has famed Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, known for crime drama “City of God”, Andrucha Washington and Daniela Thomas as creative directors, started with thousands of performers entering the arena with sheets of metallic paper, quickly transformed into a sort of “pillow” and struck hard to create a beat that resounded through the stadium.
The Brazilian national anthem “Hino Nacional Brasileiro” was then rendered by the gentled-voiced sambista Paulinho da Viola, accompanied by a string orchestra.
A panoramic depiction of Brazil’s history, including its slave trade past, followed before a unique homage to Alberto Santos-Dumont, who is, in Brazil, credited with inventing the first aeroplane and taking the first flight instead of the Wright Brothers, as a light plane flew inside the stadium before taking off into the night sky across a celebrating city.
But the high point was in rendition of the late Tom Jobim’s legendary “The Girl from Ipanema”, performed by his grandson Daniel as supermodel and national icon Gisele Bundchen, clad in a long sleeved, gold-sequin spangled dress, sashayed across on her most ambitious catwalk across the stadium. And her trail, formed into the contours of iconic works by Brazil’s greatest architect, Oscar Niemeyer.
Other star performers included the legendary samba singer Elza Soares, and hip-hop proponents Karol Conka and the 12-year-old M.C. Soffia (hip hop), all representing Brazil’s black community too. Also captivating was 21-year-old funk sensation Ludmilla, who rendered “Rap da Felicidade” (Happiness Rap) as the slick box set was rendered into the “favela” (slum), while 13-year-old Cristian do Passinho displayed nimble footwork of “Passinho” – the latest Rio dance craze.
The hour-long cultural fiesta, capped by a spectacular display of fireworks, led to the Parade of the Nations, or the march past of the participating contingents, comprising 207 including Kosovo and South Sudan who are making their debut. Also participating for the first time is the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team comprising refugees from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Congo.
Each team, preceded by a colourfully decorated rickshaw bearing their name instead of the traditional placard-holder, the flag-bearer accompanied by a child bearing a sapling, and trailed by a team of traditional musicians, entered the arena to applause, though the loudest cheers were reserved for teams from the neighbouring countries, as well as those making their debut and Palestine.
Special cheers were reserved for the Refugee Olympic Team led by athlete Rose Lokonyen Nathike, South Sudan led by athlete Guor Marial, Kosovo led by female judoka Majlinda Kalmendi, and Iran, led the wheelchair-bound archer Zahra Nemati, who is not only the first Iranian woman to win an international gold medal, but has made history by qualifying for both the Olympics and the Parlympics.
Entering last according to tradition, Brazil, marching in to the strains of “Brazil” and to sustained applause, was led by athlete Yane Marques.
For the first time, the athletes were handed tree seeds, which are intended to be sown in the Athletes’ Forest in the area of Deodoro, planned as Rio 2016’s enduring legacy.
The Indian contingent was led by Olympian medal-winning shooter Abhinav Bindra.