Niyo: Brazil hits right notes for openers

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Rio De Janeiro — After months of hearing the world telling what they couldn’t do, Brazilians welcomed an audience of billions around the globe with a taste of what they always do best:

They threw a four-hour party at the famed Maracana football stadium, lighting the flame for the 2016 Rio Olympics in an opening ceremony Friday night that was both a departure from recent spectacles and a joyful slice of this diverse country’s rich culture.

The first Olympics ever to be held in South America have been hounded by negativity, the host nation overwhelmed by political unrest, an economic recession and concerns about crime, disease and pollution. There is a massive show of force everywhere in Rio with more than 80,000 troops and security personnel, many armed with machine guns, patrolling the streets, and tear gas used on a small group of protestors near the stadium.

But Friday, it was a carnival of sound and color inside, with some 6,000 volunteers, 500 musicians and 200 professional dancers taking part in a show that the ceremony’s creative genius, Brazilian film director Fernando Meirelles, hoped “will be a drug for depression in Brazil.”

This was not the same big-budget, opulent display we’ve seen at recent Summer Olympics — perhaps 10 percent of the $40 million London spent four years ago — but that was by design, given the economic climate in Brazil, mired in its worst recession since the 1930s.

And so was the dose of reality that was delivered — a history lesson and a science project all rolled into one — just as Meirelles, best known for his Oscar-nominated film “City of God” about life in a Rio favela, had promised this week.

“Athens was a classical ceremony, Beijing was grandiose, London was smart,” Meirelles said. “Ours is going to be cool. That’s what we are all about.”

Torch songs

They’re about lots of things in this massive country of 200 million people, blessed with some of the world’s richest natural resources as well as a natural resourcefulness. And that “gambiarra” — an improvisational talent for making something out of nothing — was where the show started Friday.

It went on to deliver a message about the “importance of tolerance” in a world that is “very tense,” playing up the themes of peace and environmentalism. Which, not coincidentally, highlighted one of Rio 2016’s biggest failures, as ambitious plans to improve sanitation and clean up polluted waterways in this sprawling city have fallen disastrously short.

Still, a city known for its beautiful beaches also highlighted some of its other many attractions, from its “passinho” funk to a “bossa nova” charm that was drawn out by Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen, who portrayed the “Girl from Ipanema.”

Most expected it would be Brazilian soccer great Pele lighting the Olympic torch, but the 75-year-old said earlier in the day that poor health would keep him from the ceremony. Instead, it was former Brazilian marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, famously attacked by a spectator while leading the 2004 Olympic race and roundly praised for his sportsmanship as he settled for the bronze medal. A bit of gambiarra there, too, possibly.

Same for the official declaration opening the games, what with the elected president, Dilma Rousseff, facing an impeachment trial, and her replacement, Michel Temer, wildly unpopular. As a way of short-circuiting the boos in the stadium Friday night, Temer kept his speech brief.

Attention back home

Of course, all the angst only draws more attention. NBC, which drew criticism for tape-delaying the broadcast back in the U.S., is expecting its biggest ratings ever for these Olympics. And after consecutive weeks of divisiveness on display with the national political conventions, the next 16 days are a chance for Americans to root for one team for a change.

Friday, too, was a chance for Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, to lead the U.S. delegation, which entered the stadium wearing blue blazers, white jeans and red-white-and-blue striped T-shirts.

These are Phelps’ fifth Olympics, but this marked his first time marching in the parade of nations. Typically, he has stayed back in the village preparing for a grueling swim schedule. But Phelps won’t jump in the pool to compete until Sunday. And the owner of a record 22 Olympic medals, including 18 gold, says he’s intent on soaking up the atmosphere in what is likely his last Olympics.

“This has to be one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” said Phelps, who as the flag bearer wore a special jacket that glowed with electroluminescent panels. “I’m leading, for me, the best country in the world.”

It’s a U.S. team that’ll be favored to win the medal count again, led by a record 292 women in the 555-member delegation. Four years ago, women won 29 of the Americans’ 46 gold medals, including Flint boxer Claressa Shields, who is back to defend her Olympic title in Rio and was all smiles in Friday’s parade.

Nearly 50 athletes with Michigan ties are competing here, representing more than a dozen countries, from Austria to New Zealand, each of them with their own unique story. Like that of marathoner Mohamed Hrezi, who carried the flag for Libya into the stadium Friday night. He moved to Rochester Hills to train last fall and will start graduate school at Michigan State later this month.

“It’s a dream for me,” said Hrezi, a Muslim who trained while fasting through Ramadan, running 20 miles at night through Stony Creek Metropark. “And it’s one that you really didn’t know was going to happen.”

But it’s here now, and it’s reality for him, just as it is for Rio and these Olympics, ready or not.