The Rio Olympics is an event that’s already raised significant existential questions about the cost of the Games and the ability of a single nation to support them. So it’s fitting that its opening ceremony should be rather stripped-down (its budget was one-tenth the cost of London’s opening ceremony). The resulting pageant relied more on art than artifice, was genuinely creative and often beautiful, and dared to raise some provocative issues, from the legacy of colonialism and slavery to the threat of global warming. Predictably, there were immediately complaints, at least on my social media feed, that the ceremony was derivative and boring.
In fact, such opening ceremonies are always a little boring: circus-like spectacle carried out by masses of people with a representative sprinkling of genuine artists doing their best to make a mark amid the glitz and glitter. Having evidently been one of the few people who was underwhelmed by the over-the-top presentation in London (2012), I found the projections and dance in Rio actually quite lovely, from the leggy puppets of small organisms in the ocean at the beginning of the creation story to the representatives of indigenous people grabbing thickets of ribbons, representing the rain forest, and weaving them in Maypole-like designs. The culmination came with energetic urban dancing and an array of Brazilian luminaries, from Elza Soares (whom an NBC commentator called the Tina Turner of Brazil) to Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil.
The modest means certainly precluded some of the pageantry we saw in London, though Brazil did get in a replica of what it avers was the first manned flight. Yet the less-is-more aesthetic overall created a more unified presentation than the variety-show, wow’em-with-effects productions that have been the international norm. The means were at least adequate to stage a pageant with a strikingly good accompanying score and a lovely sequence of projections. It also created an ambience more hospitable to individual artists than many mega-spectacles, a pageant in which the National Anthem could be led effectively by a solo singer (Paulinho da Viola, a samba artist) on acoustic guitar, rather than requiring the full battery of a Super Bowl halftime show.
The Olympics are supposed to celebrate individual achievement. Yet the Games grow more entangled in webs of big business and sponsorship and copyright and money with each iteration. It would be nice if future host countries had a cap on the costs for their opening ceremonies, so that none could spend much more than Rio did, testing what’s possible on a human scale. Sadly, spectacle for its own sake is more likely to win out.