Saturday, August 6, 2016

MTVP Rio 2016 Olympics Coverage: Opening Ceremony

It’s that time again – time for the 31st Olympiad! I’ve been borderline obsessed with the Olympics for almost as long as I can remember. In 1988, Brian Boitano and Katerina Witt were heroes to a preschool-aged me who then tried (and failed) to learn to ice skate. I remember watching Today Show broadcasts from Albertville and Lillehammer before school in 1992 and 1994. I showed up very tired to a summer clerkship during law school thanks to devotedly watching the primetime coverage from Beijing in 2008. I’d say my real intense watching of the Olympics began in 2000 with the Sydney games. This is fitting in a couple ways. First, the Sydney games were the first for Baltimore (my adopted hometown) native Michael Phelps who is now competing in what will probably be his last Games in Rio. Second, the Olympics coverage on MTVP this year will be a little more sparse than usual because of all places, I’ll be in Sydney for the second week of the Games. I’m going to try, if it’s technically feasible and I can find a way to do some Olympics viewing in Oz, to write something comparing American and Australian coverage of the Games. I have a feeling it’s quite different.

Anyway, on to what actually happened last night. It’s no secret that the background to this year’s Games has been one of deep anxiety. There have been numerous ISIL related terrorist attacks this year, and certain politicians who shall remain nameless are using the fear generated by those attacks to fan the flames of nativism and xenophobia. Closer to the Games, Brazil itself and the state of Rio de Janeiro are in political turmoil. Brazil’s president has stepped aside in the middle of a de-ranging corruption scandal, and the state of Rio itself is in extreme financial crisis and had to be bailed out by Brasilia. There are major concerns about security and environmental health at the venues. In the middle of all that turmoil, though, the organizers of Rio 2016 gave us what Brazil is best known for – a joyous samba-infused party.

Brazil doesn’t have the money that China or Russia do to spend on the games, so these Opening Ceremonies were planned with a real do more with less attitude. I found that kind of refreshing, but maybe that’s just because I’m a government budget analyst in my day job. I think the Olympics have really become too gaudy and too much of a money pit to continue as they have been, so this was a welcome step back. For starters, the ceremony, instead of taking place in an elaborate brand-new stadium, was in Maracana Stadium, which has great historical significance to Brazilians. It was built to host the 1950 World Cup, where Brazil made it to the finals only to lose to neighboring Uruguay. I would like to see more host countries refurbishing sports venues as part of their Olympic plans instead of building more large stadiums that can never attract as large a crowd in the future. But the IOC at the moment only seems to see bling, so I suppose that’s wishful thinking. Additionally, the pageantry of the ceremony wasn’t quite as elaborate as Beijing, for instance. Money was put into a state of the art projection system, but everything else was more scaled back.

There were, as you would expect, many elements of the presentation that were meant to highlight Brazilian history and culture. Some worked better than others. The one that I thought really didn’t work was early on in the presentation where Brazilian supermodel Giselle Bundchen did a catwalk-style walk across the stadium. I’m not a huge fan of Giselle to begin with, and it was kind of tacky. The one redeeming aspect was that this portion of the program was set to “Girl from Ipanema,” because how could it not be? There was also a segment that traced Rio’s early history, from the water to the rainforest, to settlement, and the development of cities. It was an impressive visual spectacle, for sure. As per usual with Opening Ceremonies, there was also a segment highlighting Brazilian music, which was entertaining, although I was frantically hunting through my apartment to find my camera because I leave for Sydney on Friday and how could I go to Australia without my camera (I eventually found the camera under some clothes in my bedroom, for the record)? There was also a very positive social and environmental justice theme to the ceremony. There was a segment about taking care of the environment, and there was also a celebration of Brazil’s diversity and the international spirit of the Olympics.

The tensions in the world right now and that spirit of diversity made the parade of nations, usually a point in the festivities that I just have on as background noise, especially poignant. To see people from so many countries all having the time of their lives together was touching, and especially touching was the newly formed ten-person refugee team, with participants from, among other countries, Sudan and Syria. The crowd gave the refugees a standing ovation, and if you didn’t get at least a little teary, then I don’t think you have a heart. It was exactly the kind of message that I think needs to be broadcast earnestly before we go too far down the path of “I’ve got mine.” Another favorite moment of mine from the parade of nations was the entrance of the Brazilian team to more thunderous applause. The music choice was “Brazil,” which was both appropriate and something I appreciated because that was one of the songs we performed in our marching band show during my senior year of high school.

Following the parade of nations were all the ceremonial steps that have to be taken to officially open the Games. IOC President Thomas Bach shifted effortlessly between French and English as he gave the usual thanks to the host country and warning to the athletes against doping. Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer then declared the games open. I think the Rio Olympic Torch is especially beautiful. Marathoner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lit the torch, which is housed within an intricate sculpture that is meant to look like the Sun. The way the sculpture sparkles when the torch is lit must be spectacular to see in person. The torch lit, it was time to party. The samba music started again, and samba clubs began to dance, providing a very fitting end to an uplifting evening of unity in sport.

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