By Simon Romero : The New York Times A Grand Entrance on a Global Stage : August 5, 2016
Photo: James Hill / The New York Times
RIO DE JANEIRO — If there was a nation in need of an uplifting spectacle at this moment, even in the form of a public relations exercise, it was Brazil.
The first South American country to host the Olympics is reeling from an astonishing combination of political upheaval and economic crisis. Its efforts to stage the world’s biggest sporting event met trouble at every turn, from the Zika virus to polluted waters to budget cuts so deep that basic operations became strained.
So the opening ceremony of the Summer Games arrived Friday night as a salve, disguising the wounds for a few hours and letting Brazilians celebrate everything from the waves of immigrants still putting down stakes here to Alberto Santos-Dumont, the aristocratic bon vivant whom Brazilians credit with inventing the airplane.
Over the past several Olympic cycles, the gigantic cost of hosting the Games has drawn as much attention as the athletic performances. Host countries like China and Russia have used the Olympics as a show of force. The vibe, and the budget, are different here. These are a no-frills, budget-conscious Olympics — even if the opening ceremony dazzled.
“The show was magnificent, its portrayal of Brazil’s history through images and movement,” said Luís Gustavo da Silva Teixeira, 24, a worker at a car factory who watched the ceremony at a cafe in Rio. “I don’t know if it’s something my children will witness again in this country of ours so I feel fortunate.”
The organizers of the ceremony even chose a word in Portuguese, gambiarra, to describe their own efforts to put on a show amid Rio’s pared-down Olympic ambitions. Translating the word, which is pronounced GAHM-beeah-hah, poses its own challenges, so they offered a few options: jury-rig, quick fix, do a MacGyver.
Unpredictability marked even the lighting of Olympic caldron. The soccer legend Pelé was thought to be a likely candidate until Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, who was leading the marathon at the 2004 Athens Games when he was tackled by a spectator, carried out the honor.
The Games have also been marred by scandal emanating from half a world away: nearly a third of Russia’s Olympic delegation was barred from the Rio Olympics after revelations emerged of a state-sponsored doping program. More than 100 Russian athletes had failed to earn the approval of the International Olympic Committee.
Extolling achievements like Rio’s pioneering replanting of its urban forests and the tolerance, however fragile, that characterizes much of Brazilian society, a message emanated from the opening ceremony: Some order and progress, the words optimistically emblazoned on the country’s flag, might just emerge from the creative chaos that persists here.
Pointing to the ceremony’s honoring of Brazil’s achievements as a racially diverse nation and its call for action to combat global warming, Fernando Meirelles, the director of “City of God” — about Rio’s favelas, the gritty urban areas that largely formed as squatter settlements — and one of the event’s creative directors, proudly proclaimed that it would rankle conservative figures at home and abroad.
Political leaders certainly hope that the Olympics will be a turning point in the fortunes of Brazil and Rio, whose quest to host the Olympics began in the early 1990s — a time when the city was wallowing in crisis, enduring a long decline after authorities built Brasília, the new capital, from scratch deep in the country’s interior and transferred much of the federal bureaucracy there in the 1960s.
Still, the I.O.C. frequently frustrated Rio’s ambitions. It was only in 2009, when Brazil’s star was on the rise as its economy prospered from a commodities boom, that Rio was finally awarded the Games. Elated crowds celebrated on Copacabana.
“I’ve never felt more pride in Brazil,” Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the country’s president at the time, said when Rio got the Games. “Now, we are going to show the world we can be a great country.”
But much has changed since that exuberant day. Brazil’s economy is mired in its worst recession in decades. Rio is grappling with a resurgence of violent crime. And colossal corruption scandals are casting a pall over the nation’s political establishment.
The city’s preparations for the Olympics were marked by a long string of fiascos, including the recent collapse of an oceanfront bicycle path that killed two men. Mr. da Silva, universally known as Lula, did not even attend the opening ceremony — he is instead preparing for a trial on charges that he tried to obstruct an inquiry into a massive bribery scheme at Petrobras, the national oil company.
Mr. da Silva’s protégée and successor, Dilma Rousseff, who was suspended as president to face an impeachment trial, also skipped the show. Instead, it was the interim president, Michel Temer — who had emerged victorious in a power struggle in May — in attendance.
“We Brazilians can say with pride that we are one of the most mixed-race countries of the world,” Mr. Temer said in an essay published on Friday. Still, he left unsaid how he had named a cabinet without any Afro-Brazilians or women, making him a target of much scorn.
A loud chorus of boos greeted Mr. Temer in the Maracanã stadium when he spoke briefly to officially declare the start of the Games.
Without delving explicitly into politics, the ceremony explored Brazil’s complex history, including its settling by indigenous peoples, its colonization by Portuguese explorers and the tragic scope of the country’s slave trade.
About 51 percent of the population define themselves as black or mixed race, according to the 2010 census. The scale of Brazil’s slave trade is hard to fathom. The country received about 4.9 million slaves through the Atlantic trade, compared with mainland North America’s importation of 389,000, according to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database.
Rio, a city without a major slavery museum, is still grappling with how to discuss the ways the slave trade affected its development — even though it received more than 1.8 million African slaves. Rio alone accounted for about 21.5 percent of all slaves who landed in the Western Hemisphere.
In an interview, the rapper Karol Conka said that she had directed her performance at Mr. Temer, the broadly unpopular interim president, and Jair Bolsonaro, an ultraconservative congressman with rising political clout who talks with revulsion about Haitian immigrants to Brazil and defends the torture of drug traffickers.
“They need to understand what empathy is,” said Ms. Conka, 29, who is from the southern city of Curitiba. “The current political moment in Brazil is just unpleasant. Slavery might not exist anymore, but blacks in our society are still undervalued and attacked on social media. The only way to help the new generation is with education.”
Reflecting, perhaps, the resilience of freedom of expression in Brazil’s unruly democracy, some observers voiced displeasure over the lavish ceremony.
Letícia Bahia, a psychologist and feminist commentator, questioned the prominence given to Gisele Bündchen, the Brazilian supermodel, who cat-walked to the song “The Girl from Ipanema.”
“What does it say about a mixed-race country, boasting about its pride over miscegenation, to choose a supermodel who is white, ultraskinny, blond and blue-eyed to represent the women of Brazil?” Ms. Bahia said.
Various stunning musical performances marked the extravaganza, with a new generation of performers like MC Soffia, a 12-year-old rapper from São Paulo’s hardscrabble periphery joining giants of Brazilian music like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. Anitta, a performer mixing samba, funk and global pop with a nod to artists like Beyoncé, danced along with them.
In one of the more thrilling moments, dancers representing the Bate-Bolas, a raucous Carnival tradition in Rio, enacted a clash with dancers representing Maracatu, a Carnival tradition from the northeastern state of Pernambuco.
On a more cerebral note, the actors Fernanda Montenegro and Judi Dench read from “Nausea and the Flower,” a 1945 poem by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, in which the poet complained: “It’s still a time of feces, bad poems, hallucinations, and waiting.”
And yet, the poet manages to find hope in a flower sprouting through the asphalt.
Building on that thought, the ceremony issued a call to action to combat global warming, putting forward the strategy of reforestation to capture carbon. Curiously absent from all of this was any mention of Petrobras, one of the world’s largest petroleum concerns.
Its huge oil discoveries turbocharged Brazil’s economy, enabling the country to project clout when it was awarded the Olympics. Now Petrobras, a major emitter of greenhouse gases, is mired in scandal following revelations that Brazil’s leaders used the energy behemoth to fund political campaigns.
On Saturday, the Games begin in earnest. Will the athletes fully command the spotlight, or will the host country’s nagging problems mount? The world is watching.
Paula Moura contributed reporting.