There was a ramp for the parade of beauties, a glorious pageantry of dancing bikini bodies, some racy runway music, and talk of world peace on everyone’s lips. On any other day that sequence of events would’ve ended in a sash and a tiara atop a Barbie dress and some flying kisses and mandatory tears. But this wasn’t Donald Trump’s first commercial property. This was the Olympics.
And the world must be in pretty bad shape for the Olympics’ top bosses to step outside their self-imposed code of silence when it comes to the topic of politics, and appeal fervently through something as widely watched as the opening ceremony — close to 4 billion watching — for global peace.
This was Rio and Brazil, and South America’s first ever Olympics, bang in the middle of economic uncertainty and such political turmoil that the International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and Brazilian Carlos Nuzman boomed about how sport could buy this troubled world some desperately-needed peace — by showing how athletes from over a hundred countries stayed peacefully in a single Olympic Games Village.
That much maligned Village in the lead-up to the Games, from where trunk shorts of swimmers had disappeared, and whose plumbing had been trashed and where there were “only two chairs” in the drawing room, came across as that rare oasis where citizens of different nations managed to achieve a fundamental goal: people co-existing.
The Olympics have usually refrained from encouraging stars from making political statements. Perhaps, protocol still demands athletes stick to the business of competing fair and winning. But Olympics opening ceremonies also throw the house open to feedback from an untutored crowd in the stadium.
So the Maracanã, where Flamengo supporters sing in unison for the country’s most popular football club, was at the inauguration of the 31st Olympics, cheering for nations near and far. Unsurprisingly, cultural predecessors Spain and Portugal; Italy and Japan, with large immigrant populations; and neighbours Argentina and Chile, were cheered lustily. The Cariocas applauded affectionately for Palestine and the single-digit contingent from war-destroyed Syria, and finally, there was a standing ovation for the first-timers: Refugees from the battle-battered nations.
They needed no prompting — it was certainly not a Mexican Wave orchestrated by volunteers. Brazil, beleaguered itself, fighting immense pressure from hosting the monstrous Games, and copping flak for its water and plumbing and transport hassles, chose to lend its full-stadium voice to the underdogs, even as environment protection and peaceful coexistence remained the two prevalent themes.
Perhaps the most touching moment of the ceremony came at 7.25 Rio time, 35 minutes before the telecast began. The stadium had been filling up steadily, and the emcee was encouraging couples to smooch on the Kiss Camera, itself a great breakout from the usual IOC starchy formality and demeanour. The cameras zoomed in on couples who shyly kissed for the big screens and received adoring applause, before the lens settled on two men, initially diffident. Then they kissed, and the stadium roared its approval. One bastion stormed even before the show had begun.
Moments before the show went on air, the emcee talked of the need for non-violence, and stressed on finding tolerance — an admission and acknowledgment of one of the great global problems of our time. Display after sleek display, using projections on the floor and giant lego blocks to weave a narrative, then spoke of finding a common ground in diversity, accepting difference and embracing the other. Yes, Rio was supposed to be one big party — but this was no drug rave and music cacophony.
The symbol of Rio — and perhaps the most recognisable of the seven iconic wonders of the world — the statue of Christ the Redeemer, was used sparsely at the city’s grandest show, without a vanity overdrive. It wasn’t that they overdid the drums, the Batucada of the Samba too much either — the bossa nova chiming in the background, but not needing a dressy choir. The Samba schools marched in conclusion for a neat crescendo, but the ceremony drove in deeper on environment awareness than simply sticking a selfie stick out to its magnificent self in come-watch-me fashion. If there’s a country that could’ve made an entire show out of football, it was Brazil, but even that wasn’t used as a crutch as the world watched.
The national anthem heaved in the stadium, strummed along to the riffs of acoustic guitar by Paulinho da Voila. Supermodel Gisele Bündchen walked the showstopper’s walk, golden tresses following her. The torch was lit the traditional way — former Olympians ran with the flame in their hands, and passed it on. The choice of the man who would light the torch was poignant, and made Brazilians weep in huddles — Vanderlei de Lima, who might have won the marathon gold in Athens, but who was attacked by a spectator and ended with a bronze. The adored tennis player Guga Kuerten — he of the cute curls — brought the flame into the stadium, but it was de Lima who was given the ultimate honour.
After the kiss-cams, perhaps the most charming element of the ceremony was the Freudian slip of organising committee chair Carlos Nuzman who ended up saying Bach always believed in the “sex of these Games” before correcting himself to the “success of these Games” during a bilingual, impassioned wrap-up of what Rio had achieved in reaching the doorstep of history. A chuckle and some OMG tweeting apart, it was a perfectly well-executed show, and one with a hitherto muted political voice.