Daryle Williams, our very own Olympics correspondent and co-editor of The Rio de Janeiro Reader, is back in Rio again, this time to watch the Paralympics. Here he reflects on the opening ceremonies, which took place September 7. Follow Williams on Twitter @DaryleWilliams or with the hashtag #RioReader. Read his post on the Olympics opening ceremonies here.
Midway through the XXXI Olympiad, Rio 2016 certainly seems to prove Tom Jobim’s wry observation that Brazil is not a country for beginners. Any beginner would be bewildered by the conundrum of a nation hosting a global mega-event fundamentally gone right, including the national soccer team’s redemptive victory over sourpuss Germany, in the midst of existential crises for a ruling class fundamentally gone wrong. A beginner would wonder how a country that actually swam against the tide of inequality in the 2000s might intentionally choose the Olympic Moment to institutionalize policies that will likely increase poverty and widen social exclusion in the 2020s. A beginner would question why the small-time idiocies of LochteGate could rattle national sensibilities. A beginner might be curious and confused that there have been, to date, no documented cases of Zika transmission during the Olympics when the naysayers cried of a global public health catastrophe.
A beginner would have to wonder how Brazilian vice president Michel Temer (acting as interim president) could be in attendance at the Olympics Opening Ceremonies and then absent at the Closing Ceremonies, to then return as president for the opening of the Paralympics. Had the placards seen throughout Rio declaring “Fora Temer” (Out Temer) and “Jamais Temer” (Never Temer), or the protests in Copacabana and Lapa, inadvertently greased the slide of this highly unpopular, seemingly amoral figure into the presidential palace in Brasília? Meanwhile, the democratically-elected (now former) president Dilma Rousseff was out of sight while the world’s eyes were on the festivities at Maracanã. Yet, she adopted the bold move of making a personal appearance before the Senate to defend herself in an impeachment trial that she characterized as a legislative coup. What is a beginner to make of the forsaken opportunity to also make the case in Rio on a world stage? Finally a beginner would have to wonder how the Marvelous City could put on such a series of tremendously complex and expensive sporting events yet never quite figure out how to ensure that Olympic visitors should not be forced to solve the riddle of non-functional kiosks designated specifically to sell the transport passes required to travel to the Olympic Village in Barra da Tijuca.
But being that Brazil is not a country for beginners, perhaps these questões and confusões should be reserved for the experts.
Happily, Rio 2016 provides beginners and experts alike with plenty of material to try to put together the puzzle that is Brazil. Pieces to that puzzle — literal and figurative — were incorporated into the Paralympics Opening Ceremonies, held September 7 (Brazil’s Independence Day). The event officially welcomed to Rio 161 Paralympic delegations and 4,300 athletes. Spectators saw some of the same cheery cheesiness on display at the August 5 ceremonies that welcomed 207 Olympic delegations. The Paralympic Parade of Nations had some familiar moments of cheekiness and tedium. Yet, the final result was rather beautiful — and refreshingly different from its Olympic predecessor. The September 7 spectacle eschewed the cosmopolitan urbanity of August 5 and the celebration of Brazilian regional popular culture of the Closing Ceremonies, held August 21. All three ceremonies relied upon plenty of fireworks, but the whizz-bang factor was muted on September 7. Whereas the city was literally built to an instrumental version of Chico Buarque’s “Construção” before the audiences of August 5, Rio was merely a concept on September 7.
On that night, a jigsaw puzzle made up of pieces carrying the name of each competing nation were transformed into an enormous pulsating heart. The scene underscored the notion that Brazil is a nation of physical bodies and embodied sentiments. I tend to prefer this to the save-the-forest climax to the Olympic Parade of Nations. And it felt little like the fun, but clichéd, desfile de samba that closed the Olympics.
A message of physical bodies and embodied sentiments was threaded throughout the Paralympics kick-off. The simple pleasures of a roda de samba (the samba wheel or circle) evolved within a circle of cadeiras de rodas (wheelchairs). A deconstructed Vitruvian Man spoke to the urge to de-normalize the western classical body. The choreography of illuminated walking sticks — dancers’ bodies shrouded in darkness — raised possibilities of intentional movement and sensation without sight.
A prolonged sequence telling the story of a day at the beach, staged to the music of Gilberto Gil’s “Aquele Abraço,” was my personal favorite. I must recognize that the scene required some background in the specificities of Rio beach culture: the carting in and out of umbrellas for rent, the ambulantes selling Biscoito Globo and ice-cold sweetened mate tea. Brazil may not be a country for beginners, but that scene required a course in Advanced Carioca to really get it. It was, nonetheless, a pleasure.
The last fifteen minutes of the Paralympics opening ceremony helped me glimpse what Rio’s Paralympics (my first disability sports event) might be about. Winter Paralympic medalist and “Dancing with the Stars” contestant Amy Purdy executed a pas de deux with an industrial robot that showed us what human beauty and technological precision can look like without falling into the sci-fi fantasies of the cyborg sexpot. Playing to the moment, she danced a samba in her running blades. Yes, Paralympians also have the right to show that tudo acaba em samba. In Rio, it would seem, it all ends in samba.
Yet the actual end to the Opening Ceremonies struck me on a different register of Cariocaness. As Purdy exited the field, a light drizzle began to fall at Maracanã. Surely unwanted, the rain was nonetheless anticipated. Clear ponchos were quickly distributed to the assembled athletes and delegates. As the rain continued, the program moved towards its climax: the lighting of the Olympic Flame. 1984 gold medalist Marcia Malsar took the relay torch from fellow Paralympian Antônio Souza and began to walk towards the cauldron, assisted by a walker. As the showers intensified, she slipped and fell to the ground. The torch tumbled with her. After the collective gasp heard round the world, Malsar collected herself and stood back up to continue to carry the torch on to track and field medalist Ádria Santos. It was a moment made perfectly for televised sports: the unbroken spirit of the elite athlete who falls yet rises again to carry the game forward. It was a moment made for an able-bodied audience: the para-athlete’s indomitable fortitude feeds into the audience’s endless well of benevolent sympathy. Yet it was also a very Carioca moment, when the crowd jumped to its feet to rally Malsar. Here, the recent international coverage about Brazilian crowd behavior — boisterous, partisan, and thoroughly disrespectful of polite requests to follow the rules of decorum — seemed exceptionally silly. Cariocas are deeply engaged sports fans and will use all of their corporal powers to communicate with the athlete and move her body as they wish it to move. Rio’s rightful place as a city of intense fandom proved itself not merely accurate, but a necessary truth for Malsar and the world.
This emotional roller coaster of Malsar’s fall and rise was followed by the exceptionally gorgeous sequence of the lighting of the cauldron. Paralympian swimmer Clodoaldo Silva ascended a series of slickened ramps to light the Olympic Flame. As the rain fell hard, Silva sat solitary in his wheelchair watching along as the lit pyre rose into the night sky, to be met by a reflective rotating chandelier. Far from the explosive alegria the Olympics festivities (and quite the contrast from Aaron Fotheringham’s pyrotechnical wheelchair jump that opened the Paralympics), a rain-soaked Silva and the Flame were reminders that Rio can also be a city of contained emotion and elemental natural beauty.
A course in Advanced Carioca surely helps us appreciate this sequence, but it is not a prerequisite for taking in the Paralympic inflection of this peculiar Olympic Time for the host city and its citizens and fans, disabled and able-bodied.