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Rio shrugs off problems to stage a carnival at iconic Maracana

By Ian Herbert

It was a beautiful night for a party and so the Brazilians did what they always do: put away their troubles until another day and walked out beneath the sun and the cloudless, azure sky to make the most of it all.

The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony at the Maracana, the spiritual home of the worshipped national football team, signalled the beginning of 17 days during which the events which have been gripping this city and country - a president facing impeachment, a deep recession, the impoverished favela life of 30 per cent of Rio's population and the 60,000 murders every year which make Brazil its own kind of war zone - slipped into the background.

The ceremony instead featured those troubles more palatable to the developed world: global warming and damage to the country's magnificent Amazon rainforest.

It certainly did so with beauty and grace; with samba and pop, Grammy award winners Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil. But it did so without Brazil's most iconic athlete - Pele - whose people announced ill health following hip surgery prevented him lighting the Olympic cauldron. He had this week said that business deals would prevent him participating. It is always complicated with Pele.

In any case, those with longer memories here were saying 'leave football out if it.' The Maracana is where the Brazilians, hosting the 1950 World Cup, lost 2-1 to Uruguay in front of 200,000 people in the final.

Given the country's obsession with football, this was characterised by the nation's writers as Brazil's 'Waterloo.'

The stadium was overhauled for the 2014 World Cup final which the team were supposed to reach - but didn't.

Instead, Brazil will think about outside threats and how to repel them.

"The world is very tense and so is Brazil. We are also willing to tell the world to stop attacking our home. The world is threatened because of global warming. We are calling for action," said Fernando Meirelles, one of the directors of the opening ceremony.

There were two cauldrons in Rio, one at the Maracana and another open to the public in downtown Rio.

Downtown's was lit by a runner after the opening ceremony finished: part of an attempt to involve the city in an event which, given its difficulties, many have protested is a gross extravagance.

Flamboyance was present throughout. In all, 4,800 performers and volunteers were involved in the show, which was built on three basic pillars of life in Brazil.

Those are sustainability, particularly re-forestation; finding joy in life and in being Brazilian; and the idea of "gambiarra," the quirky Brazilian art of improvising repairs using whatever parts are available - a skill as necessary as ever here and which can have comedic and chaotic consequences.

"Smile is the approach the Brazilians have toward life," said Marco Balich, the executive producer. "Brazil is not a grand nation. They're saying in this ceremony, we are who we are, with a lot of social problems, a lot of crises in the political system."

Space limitations in the Maracana curbed the creative possibilities for the show. The stadium does not have typical Olympic dimensions - there is no track. The only Olympic events it is hosting are soccer matches.

Unpopular interim Brazilian President Michel Temer attended the opening ceremony. He replaced his ally-turned-enemy, suspended President Dilma Rousseff, who was booed here when she arrived at the World Cup's inaugural game in 2014.

Fewer heads of state than usual turned up because of Brazil's current political crisis.

Rousseff's impeachment trial is expected to end after the Olympics ends on August 21.

That's when the real world of Rio will re-materialise and re-encounter its daily struggle to be anything but a Third World economy in disguise.

Until then, it will be a pageant in which Rio will laugh, cry, sing, celebrate and have fun. Lots of fun.

Belfast Telegraph

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