The first thing you might have noticed about the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro was that it was quite a bit smaller than the last two, in Beijing and London, respectively.
There was only one major set, and much of the rest of the show was carried off via the use of digital projection, which suggested other sets, or water, or the potentially devastating effects of climate change. (Seriously. There was a lengthy section on climate change.)
But the smaller ceremony allowed for something just a little bit scrappier and more entertaining than you might have expected. By the end, as a genuinely gorgeous cauldron was lit with the Olympic flame, it was difficult not to have one surprising thought: Rio just might pull this off.
To say the buildup to the 2016 Summer Olympics was foreboding would be an understatement. Rio de Janeiro has struggled with pollution, safety concerns, and the rapidly spreading Zika virus. The country’s difficulties in preparing for the games might still end up hurting it in the days to come.
But the opening ceremony, at the very least, went off without a hitch, and that should go a long way toward calming some nerves.
Brazil’s budget for the ceremony was tighter than past hosts’ budgets, but smart staging choices from directors Fernando Meirelles and Daniela Thomas (more on that in a bit) made the most of every dollar.
The event was a celebration of the country’s culture and history, particularly its rich musical heritage. (There was even time for a quick rendition of "Girl From Ipanema.") Supermodel Gisele Bündchen, perhaps Brazil’s most famous native at the moment, made her final catwalk to the tune of "Ipanema," then went off to dance in the stands. The gigantic cauldron to hold the Olympic flame was jaw-dropping. Even the dancing arrow people were a lot of fun.
But the best thing about this ceremony was the way it embraced bright splashes of color and light. It looked like a fun place to be, and after the embattled buildup to the games, Brazil will probably take "fun."
Loser: The Parade of Nations
There’s probably no way around this, but as the number of countries recognized by the International Olympic Committee creeps past 200, the parade gets longer and longer and longer.
Rio’s Parade of Nations approached the three-hour mark, and that was in an NBC broadcast that heavily cut down the screen time of certain countries the network probably thinks Americans won’t find as interesting.
It’s hard to suggest solutions to this particular issue, because no one nation should get short shrift just because the whole thing has gotten too long. Like the Oscars, which are set on making sure all the awards are given out during the telecast, the Parade of Nations is just something the Olympics are going to keep dealing with, well into the future.
Loser: People who like to go to bed before midnight
Well after midnight on the East Coast, the torch still hadn’t been lit, and the Olympic anthem had only just been sung. Again, with the Parade of Nations being the length it is, this sort of thing is probably unavoidable, but it’s hard to appreciate, say, the evocation of Brazil’s Carnival season when all you really want to do is sleep.
Winner: Fernando Meirelles and Daniela Thomas, and surprisingly serious subjects
Meirelles is the latest beneficiary of the recent tradition of host nations turning their opening ceremonies over to one of their best directors — in this case, the Oscar-nominated man behind City of God and The Constant Gardener. (China’s Yimou Zhang guided 2008’s ceremony in Beijing, while Danny Boyle helmed London’s in 2012.)
Co-director Thomas is less well-known to international cinephiles, but her interview segments with NBC indicated a considerable level of thoughtfulness about how to get the most out of the duo’s smaller budget.
But the most striking element of the ceremony was the directors’ willingness to tackle weighty subjects in a way that remained fleet-footed. Yes, there were segments about colonization (which NBC’s hosts called "immigration") and slavery, as well as a lengthy (and somewhat heavy-handed) treatise on climate change.
But Meirelles and Thomas wedded these ideas to lovely images, like traces of white across a colored backdrop to represent the way all these different groups of people came together to create modern Brazil, no matter how tragic the history.
And, yeah, you could complain about how Meirelles and Thomas attempted to work through these dark events via interpretive dance, or you could take issue with, say, the climate change section’s relative lack of grace.
But what saved all this seriousness of purpose was the way Meirelles and Thomas blended those darker themes with more joyous moments, like a mashup of the past several decades of Brazilian pop, or a gorgeous cross section of a cityscape that called to mind the city’s favelas, but in a way that allowed for much more dancing than you might expect.
The ceremony didn’t have the shock and awe quality of Beijing, or the pop culture familiarity of London, but there was something earnest and beautiful about Meirelles and Thomas’s work all the same.
Winner: Team USA
USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! (Repeat for the next two weeks.)
Seriously, though, seeing the gigantic, hugely diverse delegation of 554 athletes from the US made for a stirring moment. Team USA is the largest at the 2016 games, and it runs all the way from incredibly recognizable athletes (like 18-time gold medalist and flag bearer Michael Phelps) to all of the lesser-known competitors who won’t capture headlines or land on Wheaties boxes but are part of the team all the same.
Yeah, the US is far from an underdog in most events, and those who reflexively cheer for upsets at the Olympics will probably find themselves siding against, say, the US basketball team. But insofar as the games make for some fun, harmless nationalism, we’ll indulge. However...
Loser: Team USA’s uniforms
Whose idea was it to clothe Team USA like the villains in a John Hughes movie?
Winner: The refugee team
The only team to receive a larger ovation than the team made up of refugees without nations to call home was the home team that immediately followed it. If the Parade of Nations is going to continue to expand as the IOC recognizes more and more nations, then at least it can expand thanks to situations like this one, which offer a moment to remember the Olympics’ supposed dedication to world peace.
Winner: Digital projection
Rather than spend money on lots and lots of gigantic sets and practical effects, Meirelles and Thomas made the strategic choice to invest in a high-level digital projection system, and that ended up being the smart choice, especially in a tremendously inventive sequence that showed dancers seeming to leap from building to building.
When the pair needed to utilize sets, they had some great ones. But the use of digital projection allowed the ceremony to look like it were as expensive as Beijing’s and London’s without actually spending as much money. It was a crafty choice.
Loser: American television viewers
Around the world, most countries view the opening ceremony as it happens. And since Rio is but one hour ahead of the America’s East Coast, the US is uniquely well-suited to watch these games in primetime.
But NBC still delayed broadcast of the ceremony by an hour, even in the Eastern time zone. (Those who watched on the West Coast had to wait four hours, without any way to watch it live unless they had access to an East Coast NBC feed.)
And as if to add insult to injury, US viewers also had to put up with the inane chatter of Today hosts Matt Lauer, Hoda Kotb, and Meredith Vieira. At various points, they said Luxembourg was in "central Europe," joked about how Djibouti kinda sounds like "yer booty," and seemed surprised to learn that the US (or Estados Unidos) would be alphabetized under E for the Parade of Nations.
Said parade always takes forever, but these hosts only make it worse, even as NBC carefully edits back the time spent on various nations’ delegations so that it can fairly sprint through letters like L and G, then spend more time on the US and various other countries NBC thinks US viewers might be interested in. (Yes: France, Australia, and, amusingly, the Federated States of Micronesia, which entered right before the US. No: essentially any nation in Africa.)
NBC’s problems with broadcasting the Olympics extend back to 1988, when NBC won the rights to the Summer Games from ABC and its longtime stalwart master of ceremonies Jim McKay and steadily turned the Olympics from a sporting event and/or a gathering of the world’s nations into an episode of Dateline. NBC’s entertainment-first approach to the Olympics has always been deeply irritating, but it’s never worse than during the opening ceremony, when you’re reminded just how bad its broadcasting team truly is.
Loser: The Olympic anthem
This is a bad song, and nobody should sing it again.
Winner: The torch relay and cauldron
The emotional high point of any opening ceremony is the lighting of the Olympic flame, and though Rio’s didn’t happen until almost 12:30 am Eastern, the lighting lived up to the hype.
The final bearer of the torch was Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, a Brazilian marathoner who was leading the race in the 2004 Athens Games, only to be attacked by a spectator, which dropped him to third.
Letting de Lima light the cauldron might not have had the immediate emotional impact for Americans of, say, Muhammad Ali doing so in 1996, but the moment nicely dovetailed with the night’s overall themes of trying to heal the wounds of the past.
At first, the cauldron seemed impossibly small, a miniature goblet of flame compared to past behemoths. But once it rose to the top of the stadium, where it was surrounded by a solar system–like collection of spheres that orbited the flame at their center, it became incredibly beautiful.
Who knows if Rio’s games will live up to an opening ceremony that felt as if it had every person watching crossing their fingers behind their back, then breathing a sigh of relief as it came to a close. But if the cauldron lighting is any indication, Brazil will make these games work via ingenuity, not sheer spectacle.