The Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony thrilled with a spectacular and at times, poignant carnival celebration of its cultural history. Words: Michael Stoneman, at the Maracana Stadium
The curtain has officially been raised on the first Olympic Games to be held in South America, with Rio 2016 bursting into life during a spectacular opening ceremony that shared Brazil’s carnival spirit with a global audience, while also delivering a strong environmental message.
The four-hour extravaganza thrilled the 60,000 fans inside Rio’s iconic Maracanã Stadium with stunning light shows and fireworks, traditional samba dancing and Bossa Nova music, and a series of incredible set pieces – not least the lighting of the Olympic cauldron by former marathon runner Vanderlei de Lima, which saw the flame rise into the air to be framed by an intricate sculpture representing the sun.
The ceremony itself saw more than 5,000 performers showcase the diversity and energy of Brazil’s cultural history, taking spectators on a visual journey from the indigenous people of the rainforest and the arrival of European settlers and Arab migrants, through to the rise of the country’s cosmopolitan cities and its vibrant popular culture.
The pulsating show had fans on their feet as they danced along to celebrated Brazilian musicians such as Jorge Ben Jor and Karol Conka, while a rousing rendition of“The Girl from Ipanema” saw supermodel Gisele Bündchen sashay her way across the stadium to the strains of the famous song.
Proceedings then took a sobering turn, however, with a stark warning about the dangers of man-made climate change, which featured video projections showing the potential impact of rising sea levels.
After a call to the world to better preserve its forests and to replant those that have already been destroyed, the 10,500 athletes who will compete in Rio began parading into the stadium, with each one planting a seed that will later form an “Athletes’ Forest” beside one of the Olympic venues.
Among those marching were a record 13 from the UAE, led by 18-year-old flag-bearer Nada Al-Bedwawi, who is making history as the first female Emirati swimmer to take part in the Olympics.
The UAE team was one of a record 207 that entered the stadium, with 205 countries joined by a delegation of independent athletes and the Refugee Olympic Team, which features 10 athletes who have been forced to fleefrom their homes. While the refugee athletes received a stirring welcome from the crowd, the biggest cheer of the evening was saved for the host nation, with the entire Maracanã roaring with delight when Brazil’s athletes paraded into view.
Following a thunderous procession of samba drummers, the Olympic flame entered the stadium, passing from tennis star Gustavo Kuerton to basketball player Hortência Marcari before reaching the hands of De Lima.
The Olympic bronze medallist – who was famously denied a gold at the 2004 Games after being attacked by a spectator while leading the marathon – then lit the cauldron to signal the start of Rio 2016.
With a stunning pyrotechnic display bringing the ceremony to a close, there could be little doubt as to why the Olympics are known as “the greatest show on Earth”– and this was just the warm-up act. Now, the attention will turn to an all-star cast of more than 10,500 athletes,who will provide even more fireworks over the next 16 days.