Today’s guest post is by Daryle Williams, Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland and co-editor of The Rio de Janeiro Reader: History, Culture, Politics. He is currently in Brazil enjoying the Olympics. Follow him on Twitter @DaryleWilliams and with the hashtag #RioReader. Here are his thoughts on the opening ceremonies.
The residents of Rio de Janeiro love a show, and from what I’ve seen in the past twelve hours, few Cariocas woke up this morning disappointed. Last night’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies at Maracanã were a spectacle of grand scales, quiet intimacies, and explosive colors. The costumes showed the creativity of a city famous for Carnaval fantasias. Brazilian music celebrities were in abundance, leading the crowd through a sing-along of familiar hits. The dancers performed the acrobatic choreography of Deborah Colker and the frenetic footwork of baile-funk. The Brazilian National Anthem was followed by another national anthem, “The Girl from Ipanema,” transformed into theme music of a fashion show starring Gisele Bündchen. A familiar history lesson of the fusion of the Three Races was tempered with a celebration of difference and diversity. The show closed with massive samba parade. Tudo acaba em samba. Everything ends in samba.
It was a performance to be seen and felt, com muita emoção, from the stadium stands, on TV Globo, via social media, in corner bars, at the renovated port, and in private homes. Among my hosts — an intergenerational group of middle-class, Zona Sul families and friends — the high point was the dramatic reveal that Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, the Brazilian marathon runner denied the gold in Athens 2004, had the honor to light the Olympic Flame. For me, it was an earlier moment when an actor playing aviator Santos Dumont took flight, departing the field to fly over Rio’s spectacular landscape of mountains, waters, private constructions, and public works. The prerecorded flight path over the illuminated city set our expectations high for the live footage of fireworks exploding from the roof of Maracanã, Christ the Redeemer in the foreground and the Zona Norte in the background. Even the tedium of the Parade of Nations were leavened by some fervent debate and irreverent jokes about interim president Michel Temer’s obvious dilemma — how to fulfill the traditional role of the host country’s head of state declaring the Games open without actually speaking, subjecting himself to the boos of the crowd. (Without any official introduction, Temer spoke just enough to end his statement in a round of catcalls. My hosts — most having attended an anti-Temer protest earlier that day — joined the chorus.)
The peculiar irony of last night’s exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime show was my experiences of normalcy earlier in the day. Without doubt, car traffic had been light. Glimpses of Avenida Rio Branco revealed a transformed downtown streetscape. Nonetheless, drivers remained oblivious to pedestrian safety. (“The Olympic Spirit,” my Carioca friend joked.) Near the modern art museum, laundry hung out to dry. The monument to Pedro Álvares Cabral was surrounded by the same sad, beaten earth that I knew from the window of the bus, en route to archives. Graffiti — sometimes artistic, most plain ugly — covered downtown buildings. What we expected to be an easy task of purchasing transport passes was complicated by the confusion of broken vending machines, followed by some improvised solutions that involved friendly humans. An evening of drinking in Tijuca felt like any Thursday, including the roda de samba. A grocery store cashier treated me with indifference; the comida a kilo lunch spot served a familiar mix of elderly couples and tourists. A few hours on the sands of Copacabana were pleasant in the most unremarkable way. Mere hours before the Opening Ceremonies — an event in the making for seven years; an event that punctuated my 28-year (and counting) love affair with the city — we were all taking it all in stride. The Opening Ceremonies proved to be quite a show, but the city and its residents proved themselves to be old hands at show-making.
Later today, my husband and I head out to see our first ticketed event, men’s gymnastics at the Arena Olímpica. The 90-minute trip to the Olympic Village will include transfers between rapid bus lines and a new metro branch, inaugurated just last week. I anticipate more confusões and improvised soluções. I expect to see more obvious evidence of the Games’ multiform shortcomings — the exclusionary landscape of gated condominiums and shopping malls; the once-pristine lagoons of Barra da Tijuca fouled by inadequate urban planning. But I also expect the emotional showmanship to go on — in the viewing stands, in the hearts, and in the everyday of Cariocas whose Olympic moment has finally arrived.
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