RIO de JANEIRO – The Olympic Opening Ceremony is not for everybody. They are artsy and strange and bewildering. Symbols are everywhere. The red flags, see, symbolize Japan, and the music represents empowerment and the single flower means . . . no, you probably won’t keep up. I never do.
Then, the point isn’t really to keep up. The point is to let the whole experience wash over you and just experience whatever it is you experience. Like I say, some people can do that. Some people can’t – it’s all too weird. Some people can embrace the murkiness and just let the music and dancing and artistry carry them along. And some people would rather for the sports to just start already.
Either way, on Friday Rio put on a perfect Brazilian opening ceremony. No, it wasn’t as awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping as the mystical magic show they put on in Beijing. We actually saw a man fly there. And it wasn’t the super-happy, psychedelic, pop-music festival that London threw four years ago. I mean, that ended with Sir Paul McCartney singing “Let It Be,” with 80,000 people joining in. Those were both fantastic in their own way.
But that couldn’t be the Brazilian way.
What is the Brazilian way? Well, there’s an interesting Portuguese term that is often used in Brazil – it is “gambiarra.”
The word technically means “Work done with improvisation and alternate parts.” And it can mean a lot of things – a new way to do something, designing something in a different way, improvising to solve a problem, etc.
But, at its core, gambiarra, as the opening ceremony creators explain, is “the Brazilian talent for making something great out of almost nothing.” As an example, they talk about how Brazil turned a stick and a wire into the berimbau, a musical instrument like a bow. Brazil turned a ball and dirt fields into some of the most beautiful soccer played in the world. And so on.
Rio, as everyone knows, faces money challenges. So the theme of this opening ceremony was gambiarra, was to find a way to tell Brazil’s story without spending the enormous sum of money that is usually spent on these extravaganzas. The idea was to touch people and move people without a huge budget and mind-blowing special effects.
And they did. Yes, there was some cool lighting. There were some fireworks. But, basically, without a hundred flying Mary Poppins’ or a flying child, they took us into the jubilant, wounded and hopeful heart of Brazil, into the story that brought the world and the Olympics here in the first place. No part of the story was hidden or spared. The ceremony began in the rainforest, at the beginning of life. It then followed Brazil through the terrible pain of slavery, of conquerors of the struggle to come together. There was no shielding the eyes. This is what made Brazil.
Yes, Brazil also took credit for flight by celebrating Albert Santos-Dumont’s 1906 flight of the 14-bis. There is, of course a healthy disagreement between the Santos-Dumont people and the Wright Brothers people, who flew three years earlier (but used a catapult to take off, which apparently is a divisive matter).
Anyway, after Santos-Dumont flew off, there was dancing and happy music.
And there was an intense plea from the country with the Amazon rain forest to give back to the land, to plant trees, to care about the world. Each athlete entering the Maracana Stadium was given a seed to put into dirt so they could plant a tree. It was a small but touching gesture. Then this was the whole point of the night, at least from the Brazilian point of view. The man who lit the cauldron – the plainest of cauldrons – was not a gold medalist. Vanderlei de Lima won the bronze in the marathon at the 2004 Olympics in large part because he was attacked by a spectator. He is a hero still.
“Those who do not know us have doubted,” said Carlos Nuzman, a former Olympian and now the head of the Rio de Janeiro Organizing Committee. “Those who do are happy.”
Yes, the many troubles in Brazil leading into these Games are not forgotten nor are they solved. Nobody yet knows how these Olympics will turn out, how the many health issues, social issues, logistical issues, security issues and political issues will play out over the next 16 days. Nobody yet knows the legacy of these games here in Brazil.
But – and this was the cool part – here was Brazil at the opening ceremony not making big promises, not guaranteeing to blow everyone’s mind. Instead, Brazil reached out and said, “We know how to make something out of nothing. Come with us.”