The Olympics’ opening ceremony: Brazil knows how to throw a party

Sure, other countries may have more money, better technology, and fewer social issues. But can they samba?

Dancers perform during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium on August 5, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Richard Heathcote |Getty Images

The world has been watching Brazil ever since the country won the honor of hosting the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In the U.S., we’ve been watching mostly to see if Brazil could even pull it off: the country has been hard hit by an economic crisis, political upheaval, and the Zika virus, and cracks in its preparedness are apparent: athletes have posted images of grubby and malfunctioning accommodation in the Olympic villages and, um, body parts have washed up on the beaches. Yikes.

But never fear: Brazil knows how to fly by the seat of its pants. The opening ceremonies last night were relatively low-tech and not especially, well, money—but they made up for any lack of polish with a certain spirit and joie de vivre that made viewers wish, for a moment, that they were Brazilian (or could at least hang out in Rio for a while).

The media has described the show as “Cirque de Soleil”-esque, and the show called to mind the particular excitement that comes with watching humans at the top of their game perform incredible feats … which, after all, is the whole point of the Olympic games. Computerized light shows? London’s smoke stacks? What does that really have to do with athletic prowess? Brazil’s opening ceremonies were about the incredible beauty and discipline of the human body.

The New York Times reports that Brazil was determined to put on a show in the spirit of gambiarra, which Times writer Simon Romero defines as “jury-rig, quick fix, do a MacGyver.” It’s true that the show felt a bit, well, Willy Wonka-ish as performers in elaborate and colorful costumes nodded to the country’s history of slavery, immigration, and more.

But Brazil’s willingness to even go there—to openly acknowledge the uglier chapters of the country’s history, to note that Brazil’s culture owes a debt to both slaves brought here against their will and to current immigrants, was a choice that other countries might not have made. As Willa Paskin, reporting for Slate, writes, “[I]magine an opening ceremony in the United States, where the legacy of slavery and the question of immigration are so deeply controversial; a show that highlighted either would be interpreted as a partisan salvo in the culture wars.”

But lest you think the show was overly didactic or heavy—remember this is Brazil, full of vibrant, lighthearted beauty. The performance included two of the country’s major contributions to the world’s culture: samba and Gisele Bundchen. Bundchen walked the catwalk to the “The Girl From Ipanema,” (reportedly her last catwalk ever as the super model winds down her lustrous career), and samba dancers provided a glittering backdrop to the other elements of the ceremony, just in case you ever forget that Brazilians, at any given moment in time, are always exactly one second away from breaking into a dance.

Couldn’t stay up last night for the ceremony, and want to watch the spectacle? NBC has video of Rio 2016 here. Cheer along for Team USA, for the Refugee Team, for the greased-up Tongan flag bearer (as one friend of mine noted, “I love that there are goofballs in every country.”) Cheer because it’s a fundamental human need to cheer, to find joy in community and spectacle, and to come together with other people from around the world for peaceful competition. Cheer because the Olympics are a testament to human endeavor, no matter where you are. Let the games begin.

Michael Phelps of the United States carries the flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Brazil

Michael Phelps of the United States carries the flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Brazil. Cameron Spencer | Getty Images

Leigh Anderson
Leigh Anderson
Leigh Anderson is the author of "The Games Bible: The Rules, The Gear, The Strategies" (Workman, 2010) and has written for Vox, Newsweek.com, and Popular Science, among others.

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