There were lights and there were dancers and some pretty eye-bending projections, all of it deliberately low-tech by the standards of Olympic opening ceremonies, absent the mechanical wonderment of London or the technical wizardry of Beijing, embracing a theme of nature and renewal, by necessity as much as anything.
And yet the impression, before the athletes had even entered the Maracana on Friday, was overwhelmingly vibrant, with the same impact of their more complex (and expensive) brethren, which one hopes bodes well for these games in general.
Fernando Meirelles, the film director behind the spectacle, said his budget was cut from $113 million to $55 million for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics and Paralympics – an order of magnitude less than London or Beijing.
“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,” Meirelles said. “The environment can’t handle it any more, we are warming the planet. It is pretty tacky to be overspending. It is not a good message for the world. When 40 percent of the homes in Brazil have no sanitation, you can’t really be spending a billion reais (about $300 million) for a show.”
So these ceremonies, heavy on affordable humans and light on expensive feats of engineering, accurately reflect the spirit of the Rio games: full of personality but a little lacking in the budget department.
And none of that distracts from that odd quadrennial sensation that the entire world is watching the same thing at the same time, even if it’s a little different from what the world has come to expect in this particular moment.
“It’s the most beautiful thing in the world,” Duke and U.S. basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski said, “and it happens once every four years.”
With it came all the usual fanfare, including one especially local touch: Sprinter Ramon Gittens, a 2011 graduate of St. Augustine’s, carried the Barbados flag.
The mystery over who would have the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron thickened Friday when Pele announced health concerns would prevent him from attending the ceremony. In the end, it was Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, who lost gold in the 2004 marathon when he was attacked while leading the race.
There was no mystery about who carried the U.S. flag at the head of the delegation, only a missed opportunity. It was hard to argue with the choice of Michael Phelps, a 22-time medalist who had never before attended the Opening Ceremony because of his competition schedule. Ibtihaj Muhammad, though, is a pioneer who may soon become an icon, and nothing would have said more about the meritocracy and egalitarianism of America than a Muslim woman carrying our flag.
That message would have been especially resonant given the expected presence at the end of the parade – ahead only of host Brazil – of the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team, competing for the first time under the banner of the Olympic flag. They have survived pestilence and war, lost friends and loved ones, adopted foreign countries and still are here to compete, politically adrift but absorbed by the bosom of the Olympic movement.
We don’t know the same language. We’re not from the same countries,” Mardini said. “The Olympic flag unites us all together. Now we represent the 60 million refugees around the world.
Swimmer Yusra Mardini, who’s part of the 10-member Refugee Olympic Team
The Syrian flag was scheduled to take its lap around the track long before Yusra Mardini and Rami Anis, swimmers who fled the civil war there. It was once their flag. It may one day be again. But it is not now.
“I dream about competing in the Olympics under my country’s flag, but I’m proud to compete even under the Olympic flag,” Anis said earlier this week. “I hope by Tokyo 2020 there will be no refugees.”
The 10 refugees tell their impossibly heartbreaking stories in measured monotones that camouflage the horror that underlies them. They have risked their lives to escape some of the world’s most dangerous places, and ended up here, without a country, but with a home.
“We don’t know the same language. We’re not from the same countries,” Mardini said. “The Olympic flag unites us all together. Now we represent the 60 million refugees around the world.”
At a time when the Olympic movement staggers under the weight of corruption, doping and scandal, let alone questions of its future viability given the extravagant cost of hosting the games, the refugees offer a piercing reminder of why all of this – the fanfare, the competition, the expense – does, once in a while, matter.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock