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Rio brings its samba style to the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics

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The Opening Ceremony kicks off the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

RIO DE JANEIRO — The Summer Olympic Games kicked off Friday night in an opening ceremony with a gutted budget but a soaring feel, as a stadium nestled here below a hillside pulsed with lights, fireworks, circus-like acrobats and a samba singalong typical of this nation’s partying style.

Brazil, the first South American country to host the Olympics, used the start of the Games to tell a version of the country’s history — from slavery to mega-cities — that comes as hard economic times are testing its fun-loving style.

The celebration featured a 12-year-old rapper, a supermodel, and beams of light used to dazzling effect — part of what Daniela Thomas, one of the event’s co-directors, called “MacGyver” ingenuity, in reference to the stripped-down budget.

This was a tricky task, throwing a party at a grim time. Brazil’s president has been suspended and is awaiting an impeachment trial that could occur during the Games. The country is suffering its worst recession in decades. Paychecks have been delayed for some civil servants in recent months. Call it the Austerity Olympics — except in one way. Even in a country without a history of extremist attacks, 88,000 soldiers and are patrolling Rio, twice the number used in London four years ago.

The opening ceremony sought to pump the brakes on the high-tech one-upsmanship that has come to define the opening ceremonies of Olympic Games from Beijing to London to Sochi. The Brazilians went for organic and authentic, looking to nature and their own cool style. Their show didn’t rely on expensive mechanical audacities; they resorted to what the program described as “analogue inventiveness.”

This played to the nation’s strengths. Brazil has natural beauty in reserve: the world’s largest rainforest in the Amazon, the white sands of Copacabana. Rio de Janeiro is a city whose residents love to be outside: from the girls who skateboard down the Ipanema coast to the men sharing icy beers on plastic sidewalk tables. The city does not walk, it cruises,a backbeat floating in the warm air, needing nothing but shorts and flip-flops.

As the ceremony kicked off, projections of light and imagery cast the stadium floor in ethereal greens and blues, as in a span of minutes providing eons of choreographed history. Images on the turf first showed a creation-of-Earth story — molecules, smoke, creatures crawling from the sea. Soon, a new splash of light gave the stadium the feel of a rain forest, with the sounds of animals chirping to make the point. The analogue part? Massive Erector Set-like insects, attached to the shoulders of performers, shuffled across the stadium.

Then, history zoomed forward, and the stadium was a history-heavy dance. A line of indigenous tribes carving out homes in the rain forest. Portuguese arriving on ships in the colonial era. Africans towed to shore, shackled, moving through the stadium with feet secured in blocks. Then, the music quickened, and projections showed what appeared to be blocks rising from the ground. As those blocks turned into skyscrapers — an homage to Rio’s development — a team of dancers leapt from rooftop to rooftop, in what resembled an action movie chase scene.

Earlier, the Brazilian singer Regina Casé, who warmed up the crowd at Maracanã stadium, told the thousands of cheering spectators what they wanted to hear: “Here in Brazil, we like to party.”

Over 400 years before it became the last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery in 1888, Brazil imported about 5 million African slaves, 10 times more than the United States. The opening ceremony at the 1996 Summer Games, which were held in Atlanta, did not include any reference to slavery, angering some groups.

Before the 206 competing nations, plus one refugee team, paraded into the stadium, Brazil showed off some of its musical riches, with a much-loved samba singer, Zeca Pagodinho. The audience sang along. This was following by a dance routine featuring dancers spinning on the floor, which was based on capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, and was accompanied by Brazilian female rapper Karol Conka.

After the hour-long show, athletes paraded into the stadium — led first, per tradition, by Greece, which hosted the initial Games. The order then proceeded alphabetically; athletes from Cameroon wore traditional flowing robes, those from communist-led Cuba had outfits designed by a French luxury footwear designer. The team from the United States — Estados Unidos, in Portugese — paraded in earlier than it usually does, this time wearing blue blazers and being led by legendary swimmer Michael Phelps.

The U.S. team received a warm reception as Secretary of State John F. Kerry looked on from the stands.

The athletes included the decorated and the obscure, representing nations with rich and thin sporting histories. Aghanistan, with three athletes, was led by Kamia Yousufi, 20, competing in the 100-meter dash. Meantime, tennis star Andy Murray fronted the team for Great Britain; his rival on the pro tour, Rafael Nadal, carried the flag for Spain.

Rio’s preparations for the Games were marked by a catalogue of bad news: sluggish venue construction,rising crime and coastal waters so polluted that Olympic swimmers were advised to avoid swallowing even a few spoonfuls.

But, for one night at least, Rio de Janeiro was basking in what it does best. This is a country expert in revelry, which every year fills its streets with dancing, stranger-kissing, inebriated glee at Carnival. The drumming and samba, the feathers and sequins, the models and athletes: Brazilians have been preparing for the opening ceremony for years.

Hundreds of millions of people around the world tuned in to Maracanã stadium — the 74,000-seat venue hosting the ceremony, which was co-created by the filmmaker Fernando Meirelles and Thomas to honor Brazil's sports, multi-ethnic history, world-famous music and natural beauty.

Many people had expected the Olympic flame to be lit by 75-year-old soccer legend Pelé, but he said that he would not participate in the ceremony because of his health.

Coming two years after the most expensive Olympics ever — the $50 billion Winter Games in Sochi, Russia — Rio’s welcome to the world was jubilant but restrained. The country’seconomic fortunes have plunged since it won the bid for the Games in 2009. It is now locked in one of its worse recessions in history, dragged down by slumping oil prices and allegations of staggering corruption.

For the opening ceremony, the budget available for Meirelles, who directed the Oscar-nominated film “City of God,” was one-tenth of what British director Danny Boyle had for the 2012 Summer Olympics ceremony in London. In an interview on the 2016 Rio Olympics website, Meirelles talked about how his ambitions were forced to shrink along with the vanishing budget. What began as more than $100 million was cut in half, a show of 3,000 people sliced to 700.

"At first I was very upset. You start thinking something very big and then you have to cut, cut, cut," he added. "On the other hand, it is good in some way because we are in a moment in the world where we need to be reasonable with the way we spend money."

That scaled down ambitions fit well with the frustrated mood across many parts of Rio.

The run-up to the games has been punctuated by demonstrations, an anti-Olympic backlash driven by people who felt the time was not right for lavish spending. Protesters blocked the torch's progress as it made its way around the country and attempted to douse it with fire extinguishers and buckets of water; in a few cases they were met by police firing tear gas and rubber bullets.

Just hours before the opening ceremony, security forces fired tear gas and a percussion grenade after youths set fire to a Brazilian flag and a Rio 2016 volunteer’s T-shirt and tried to get close to the Maracanã stadium. One man was arrested.

The trouble came after a march targeting what demonstrators called “the Exclusion Games” had come to a peaceful end in at the leafy Afonso Pena square near the stadium. Beatriz Nunes, 34, a teacher at the march, said that when some protesters tried to cross a police line, officers responded with tear gas and the percussion grenade.

Earlier in the day, a few thousand protestors marched along the Copacabana seafront in a sea of red shirts. They took aim at two targets – Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer, who took over in May when President Dilma Rousseff was suspended and ordered to face a controversial impeachment trial, and the Olympic Games themselves.

“We don’t have the conditions to receive the Games,” said Leonardo Ladeira, a 22-year-old protestor. “At this moment it is a chaotic activity.”

-- Courtesy of The Washington Post

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