Mike Rowbottom

Brazil’s economic troubles were always going to be a telling factor in the shape and feel of the Opening Ceremony here in the Maracanã which got the Games of the XXXI Olympiad underway here tonight, with creative director Fernando Meirelles ruefully acknowledging that his budget had had to be “cut, cut, cut…”

But the unkindest cut of all had occurred only hours before the Ceremony as Pelé, Brazil’s footballer of eternal glory who had been expected to light the Olympic Cauldron, had announced that he would be unable to attend the event due to health reasons, explaining: “I’m not physically able to attend the opening of the Olympics.”

Instead the honour of applying torch to cauldron in a traditional manner eschewed by the London 2012 Games fell to marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, who was attacked by an Irish priest as he led the 2004 Olympic race at the 35 kilometres mark and eventually finished third, later winning the Pierre de Coubertin medal for the sportsmanship he displayed in the circumstances.

It was another unforgettable Olympic experience for a man who began working with his father as a peasant farmer at the age of eight.

This poignant moment had been preceded by a speech of trembling emotion from Carlos Nuzman, President of the Brazilian Olympic Committee. "The Olympic dream is now a wonderful reality," he said, the paper shaking under his hands. "Brazil welcomes the world with open arms. Yes, I am the proudest man alive. I am proud of my city, and my country.

"These Olympic Games are the first in South America.

"Always believe in your dreams. We never give up. Yes! We never give up! Rio is ready to make history..."

Brazil's 2004 Olympic bronze medallist and winner of the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, approaches the Olympic Cauldron ©Getty Images
Brazil's 2004 Olympic bronze medallist and winner of the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, approaches the Olympic Cauldron ©Getty Images

Following Nuzman to the podium, the International Olympic Committee's President Thomas Bach added: "The Olympic Games is a catalyst. You have achieved in the past seven years what generations before could only dream of.  You have transformed this wonderful city of Rio de Janeiro, and made it even more beautiful.

"Our admiration is even greater because you have managed this at a very difficult time in Brazilian history. We have always believed in you."

There was no mention of doping, but there was this: "I call upon you Olympic athletes to respect yourselves, to respect each other and to respect the Olympic values." 

He concluded by holding up the historic presence of the Refugee Olympic Team as an expression of Olympic Solidarity: "You are sending a message of hope to all the many millions of refugees around the world.

"In this Olympic world we do not just tolerate diversity, we welcome it as an enrichment."

The Olympic Oath was then taken on behalf of the athletes by double Olympic sailing champion Robert Scheidt.

The official announcement that the Games were open, made as hastily as possible by the Interim President of Brazil, Michel Terner, was received with a very fair measure of whistling and booing which were clearly not a judgement upon the openness or otherwise of the Games.

This Opening Ceremony, presaged by protests from thousands in Rio who wanted the money that has gone into the staging of these Games to have been used more directly for the people of the city, at least succeeded in ticking the boxes for the citizens in the 60,000 crowd.

The samba rhythms pumped insistently throughout an evening in which ingenuity was the gold medallist.

Whereas London 2012 had a succession of extraordinary artifices and props, Rio’s opener was predominantly son and lumiere, with energy supplied by a cast of hundreds.

Brazil’s history, from the first surging of the tide on the earth, to the dense growth of forest, to the first forest tribes and – inevitably – the first tribal dance and song – was rendered through the economical and ingenious use of light shows fashioned and directed by video artist Susie Si

The only point at which the ingenuity failed to come off was at the point where figures jumped their way from rooftop to rooftop as the new city began to rise beneath their feet. It looked 3D in the television shots, but not in real life.

The "Girl from Ipanema" walked in spangled glory the length of the floor towards the image of the composer Tom Jobim, who, in the words of the official hold-my-hand guide, “gave life to the Bossa Nova” and created “hundreds of songs that praised love, nature and the city of Rio de Janeiro. Jobin’s grandson, Daniel Jobim, was doing the honours at the piano.

Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen made the last walk of her modelling career as The Girl From Ipanema ©Getty Images
Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen made the last walk of her modelling career as The Girl From Ipanema ©Getty Images

Doing the honours as "The Girl" was supermodel Gisele Bundchen, officially closing her modelling career in front of 60,000 people - doing "That Walk" on the catwalk.

This Ceremony didn’t shirk some hard truth, however, as he closing part of it offered up projected graphics of coastlines belonging to cities around the world - including Florida, Shanghai and Rio – inundated by sea levels rising through CO2 emissions.

The theme switched to re-planting – the re-planting of hope – and the images had as their aural backdrop the alternate voices of Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro and Britain’s Judi Dench as they interpret Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s classic poem, A Flor e a Nausea.

So while the London 2012 Opening Ceremony featured James Bond, this one had M.

"We love sports in our city, but our city needs other things like better schools, better hospitals, free access to education," said one of the protesters, Anna Barros, an English teacher in Rio. "We need to invest money in our people."

In Olympic terms at least, the level of investment in the latest Opening Ceremony was far from extravagant, as its creative director had made clear.

“We were looking at a budget of $113.9 million [for the four ceremonies – Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Olympic and Paralympic Games],” said Meirelles. “But little by little it has been cut and now our budget is $55.9m for four ceremonies. Most of this money is for security, and all the stuff around the show.'

He added: ' I think it is 12 times less than London, 20 times less than Beijing…this makes it very challenging."

"At first I was very upset, you start thinking something very big and then you have to cut, cut, cut.

'On the other hand, 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.”

One element of this Ceremony which doesn’t cost money is the parade of the teams.

Starting with Greece, as tradition dictates, and then on alphabetically, without undue influence from those three most powerful letters NBC…

Bahrain…Belarus...Belgique….and that country’s former IOC President Jacques Rogge stood to offer heavy, deliberate applause.

Belize…Bermuda….Bolivia…Amel Tuka, world 800m bronze medallist, bearing Bosnia-Hercegovina’s flag…and on that theme, London 2012 800m silver medallist Nijel Amos doing the same for Botswana….

Andy Murray keeps up a recent macho tradition as he carries the flag for the British team in the Maracanã ©Getty Images
Andy Murray keeps up a recent macho tradition as he carries the flag for the British team in the Maracanã ©Getty Images

There had been tweets flying from rowing types challenging Andy Murray, Britain’s flagbearer, to match up to the one-handed efforts of previous bearers such as Sir Matthew Pinsent and Sir Chris Hoy.

Rafael Nadal led the Spanish team into the arena in classic style, the flag held with both hands. Would the Scot maintain the Great Macho tradition?

Yes. On he came, waving gently, the flag borne upright in his left hand. He looked like he was out for a stroll in his home town.

As the Refugee Olympic Team came in under the Olympic flag, uniquely, historically, Bach was up and out of his seat to applaud the ten faces dazed with delight. From war and strife to this thunderous acclaim - an extraordinary journey completed before a second of competition has been undergone.

But the noise which accompanied that entrance was redoubled in the moment when the entire home crowd - if not nation - was climactically able to voice its fervour for the team which will represent it at the Games now officially underway. It was a Maracanã roar suitable to acclaim a Pelé goal.