Among the primary themes of the Rio Olympics opening ceremony Friday at fabled Maracana Stadium was to animate the notion of “gambiarra,” described as “the Brazilian talent for making something great out of almost nothing.”
Lest the concept is unclear, the official media guide to the ceremony cited synonyms such as “do a MacGyver” — improvising and making clever use of all possible resources.
It remains to be seen if such resolve will define the orchestration of the games themselves for a nation that cruelly suffered an economic meltdown shortly after the International Olympic Committee’s ambitious decision in 2009 to expand its brand to South America. Brazil has scrambled to be ready and been stigmatized by concerns about street crime and the Zika virus and its readiness to prevent the ever-present fear of terrorism.
But if the whimsical, joyous and remarkably candid ceremony is any indication of the power of the spirit of gambiarra, perhaps the games can thrive here, or this can be a jumpstart in that direction.
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It all ultimately came off just as creative director Fernando Meirelles had wished despite the severe budget cuts.
“I hope (the ceremony) will be a drug for depression in Brazil,” he said earlier this week. “Brazilians can look at it and say, ‘We are a cool people. We are different ethnic groups, we live together, we never went to war. … We know how to enjoy life, and we tend to be happy.’ ”
At the very least, for a magical night it provided a reprieve from a volatile world that was the underpinning for one of the most moving moments of the night: the appearance under the IOC flag of a 10-member Refugee Olympic Team.
The refugee team received a sustained standing ovation, the only one for any nation, until moments later the host country concluded the Parade of Nations to deafening applause.
In the latest version of what ceremony contributor and Kansas State professor Bryan Pinkall likes to call “the world’s largest art form,” the rich canvas commemorated everything from samba to bossa nova, from the Amazon rain forest and the Brazilian indigenous peoples to the shame of 400 years of slavery.
And … beach vendors, those smiling bicyclists leading each nation’s delegation with plants on the backs of their rides.
“Smile is the approach the Brazilians have toward life,” Marco Balich, the executive producer, told The Associated Press. “Brazil is not a grand nation. They’re saying in this ceremony, ‘We are who we are, with a lot of social problems, a lot of crises in the political system, etc.’ ”
The show sought to meld it all together, and perhaps one sequence brought the contrasts and cause-and-effect together more than any other.
Striding solo across the length of a stadium brimming with some 70,000 revelers — and on TV screens purportedly being watched by billions — supermodel Gisele Bundchen took what was being called her final catwalk.
The moment was made hypnotic by the crowd singing along to “The Girl From Ipanema” being played by Daniel Jobim, the grandson of the song’s writer, maestro Tom Jobim.
Then the show transitioned from sheer beauty to the grit and resilience and imagination to be found “above Ipanema”: favelas, the slums of Rio that have produced, among others, Brazil’s best badminton player, Ygor Oliveira, who grew up mixing swatting shuttlecocks with samba.
As the program put it, “Any history of pop will tell about the same origin: It is from the poorest, the most underprivileged neighborhoods that the rhythm, songs and dances moving the planet originate.”
So they danced and sang and welcomed the world, including the U.S. delegation led by swimmer Michael Phelps and featuring tennis player and Blue Valley North graduate Jack Sock.
Sock could be seen holding up his cellphone apparently taking video as he walked. On Twitter, he later posted a picture of himself on the field and wrote, “An absolutely surreal moment tonight.”
Also among the U.S. delegation in a program extolling diversity was Ibtihaj Muhammad, who will become the first American athlete to wear the Muslim hijab veil in an Olympics when she competes in women’s fencing.
“I’m hoping that just my presence on Team USA changes the misconceptions that people may have about the Muslim community,” she said at a news conference Thursday. “...It’s a very slippery slope when you use hateful rhetoric, when you openly use bigoted comments towards a group of people and you encourage violence, so I’m hoping that the rhetoric changes and changes fast.”
For all the diversion and energy the night provided, though, conspicuous by their absence were more than 100 Russian athletes banned as drug cheats — a reminder that the integrity of the competition isn’t always assured.
And sincere as the message of “peace with the planet” and biodiversity and conservation might have been, alas, that rang hollow considering Rio’s issues with cleaning up its own water.
Meanwhile, that real world outside loomed.
A place where there were a whole lot of the 80,000 police and military mobilized to safeguard the games … only weeks after arrivals at a Rio airport routinely were greeted by “WELCOME TO HELL” signs held by police saying they wouldn’t be safe here.
A place where, just before the ceremony began, authorities fired tear gas after youths set a Brazilian flag and a volunteer’s T-shirt on fire, according to media reports.
A place where there’s no way to know what’s to come in the next 16 days … but where maybe some gambiarra can come in handy.