RIO DE JANEIRO — At the last minute, Brazil’s controversial interim president got cold feet.
He couldn’t bear to open the show with 60,000 boos reverberating before a billion-strong global television audience. In a breach of Olympic protocol—and the running order in the program—there was no presentation of the president at the start of the Opening Ceremony.
Michel Temer, who came to power when impeachment proceedings were brought against Dilma Rousseff earlier this year, did not dare to face his public.
It was yet another whitewash in what Rio residents are calling the “Exclusion Games.” Protests against the Olympics held across the city before the Opening Ceremony called for him to quit and derided the “coup” against Rousseff. Temer’s cabinet, which replaced the Rousseff administration, is made up entirely of aging white men, many of them under investigation for corruption in their own right.
The ceremony was happy to confront Brazil’s abhorrent past in a striking segment that showed African slaves being brought to the country in shackles and forced to work the land in giant hamster wheels that represented their toil on the sugar plantations.
The Portuguese were pioneers of the Atlantic slave trade and Brazil one of the biggest recipients; it was also one of the last countries to stop using the brutal ocean crossings from Africa. Slavery was finally banned in Brazil just 12 years before the dawn of the 20th century.
Once freed, black Brazilians crowded into the cities like Rio and São Paulo, but the lack of property forced them to build ramshackle settlements on the surrounding hills. Most of those favelas are still standing to this day.
A sanitized version of the favelas brought the Opening Ceremony to life as the mostly Brazilian crowd leapt to its feet to dance along to the carioca funk and pulsating energy of the “passinho” dance-style that was forged in the clubs of Rio’s favelas.
Like the London 2012 ceremony four years ago, the creator in charge of the vision was a movie director famed for his gritty depictions of real life.
Fernando Meirelles made the stunning but brutal movie City of God, set in the crime-ridden favelas. But where Trainspotting director, Danny Boyle left some of the grime in his London 2012 ceremony, Meirelles cast a purely fresh and vibrant vision of modern Brazil.
One scene in which supermodel Gisele Bündchen was to be confronted by a cheeky favela boy in the middle of the show was cut from the final version after claims that the boy would look like he was attempting to rob Tom Brady’s missus. Meirelles insisted that the boy was merely to be chased away after demanding a selfie, but in any case the scene was cut at the first sign of controversy.
In the end, Gisele’s appearance was one of the best moments of the ceremony as the crowd was waked from a torpor that settled while the birth of life on Earth was recreated through the medium of stretchy material.
Bündchen’s last—and possibly longest—catwalk was rapturously cheered the length of the Maracanã to the tune of “The Girl from Ipanema.”
It was a bravura performance and a much needed one from one of Brazil’s most recognizable and cherished stars. The soccer legend—and undisputed number one national icon—Pelé pulled out of the ceremony just hours before it was due to begin, citing ill-health.
His late withdrawal was a painful reminder of Rio’s inability to fall in love with the games so far.
That may change once the sports get fully underway on Saturday. Certainly the crowd welcomed the athletes to the arena in full voice. The refugee team received a standing ovation.
Political instability in Brazil may have limited the presence of world leaders to watch over their teams emerging into the spotlight, but John Kerry was there, fumbling with his phone for a souvenir shot of Michael Phelps leading Team USA into the games.
After three and a half hours, Temer was finally forced to do his duty and declare the games open. Organizers kept his face off the big screens in the Maracanã to try and limit the reaction, but as soon as his voice was heard, a cacophony of boos rained down from all sides. Another round of fireworks was launched but they could not drown out the verdict of the crowd.