RIO DE JANEIRO — Rebirth and regeneration.
That was the message behind a vibrant Opening Ceremony that heralded the start of the Rio 2016 Olympics.
From supermodel Gisele Bundchen’s tribute to the “Girl from Ipanema” to the promise of an athletes’ forest to be planted after the Games, Brazil’s big night saluted the country’s past and pointed towards a greener future.
A day of protests against the hosting of the Games gave way to a night of pageantry at the Maracana Stadium, albeit on a budget one-tenth the size of the equivalent in London four years ago.
“These first-ever Olympic Games in South America will go from Brazil to the entire world,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach told the crowd.
“With the Olympic Games as a catalyst, you have achieved in just seven years what generations before you could only dream of. You have transformed the city of Rio de Janeiro into a modern metropolis and made it even more beautiful.
“Our admiration for you is even greater because you managed this at a very difficult time in Brazilian history. We have always believed in you.”
During his speech, Bach also paid tribute to the refugee team which will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag.
“We are living in a world where selfishness is gaining ground, where certain people claim to be superior to others,” he said of the Olympians representing displaced people across the world. “Here is our Olympic answer.”
President of the organizing committee Carlos Nuzman delivered an impassioned tribute to Rio and urged Brazilians to embrace the Games.
“Our dream is for the Olympic city to be transformed by the Games,” he said. “This marvelous city is the perfect city. Let’s live our dream together and stay together when circumstances challenge us.
“In the name of all Brazilians, I welcome the world. Rio is ready to make history.”
Brazil’s interim president Michel Temer spoke briefly to the crowd to officially open the Olympics, but he was greeted by boos from a section of the crowd, reflecting the dissatisfaction of the Brazilian people with the government.
The lighting of the Olympic cauldron followed, with the honor going to Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, a former runner who led the marathon at the 2004 Games until he was attacked by a spectator. He eventually finished third.
Former tennis star Gustavo Kuerten brought the flame into the stadium and passed it on to ex-basketballer Hortencia Marcari, then De Lima took center stage.
Reports earlier Friday suggested that football legend Pele was too fragile to take part.
While the opening sequence of the ceremony included a nod to “Gambiarra” — the Brazilian talent for making something great out of almost nothing — public anger Friday focused on the level of spending on the Games.
Against this backdrop, the ceremony’s director Fernando Meirelles — whose most famous work is the 2002 film “City of God” — was keen to spread a message of conservation.
And despite describing the final rehearsal as a “disaster,” Meirelles and Games organizers will be relieved that festivities went off without a hitch.
As if to reinforce the green ethos of the ceremony, it came to a close with a floral recreation of the Olympic rings.
Prior to the 11,000-plus athletes parading into the stadium, it was revealed each of them would plant a seed that would form a forest at Radical Park in Deodoro, containing a different species for each of the 207 competing nations.
Gisele threatened to steal the show when she strutted across the arena floor, with the world’s highest-earning supermodel admitting it was “the longest catwalk I’ll ever walk” in an Instagram post prior to the ceremony.
“I am humbled and honored to be part of this historic moment for my country,” she added. “I believe that the unity is the key to creating a world filled with kindness, gratitude, peace, and love.”
The show is the work of 35,000 professionals and roughly 12,000 volunteers. It featured 12 samba schools and required 5,500 costumes.
Brazil’s flag bearer was modern pentathlete Yane Marques, who led the home team into the Maracana to a rapturous welcome, with the hosts bringing the parade of nations to a close.
The Russian team was led into the stadium by flag bearer Sergei Tetiukhin, who is on the men’s volleyball team.
The 271 Russian athletes — out of an original entry list of 389 — who walked into the stadium were only officially cleared to take part in the Games on Thursday.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport is still deliberating on several appeals from Russians seeking to overturn doping bans.