Olympics: Rio welcomes the sporting world with spectacular opening ceremony

Fireworks explode over the Maracana stadium.
Fireworks explode over the Maracana stadium.PHOTO: AFP
Singapore athletes take part in the opening ceremony.
Singapore athletes take part in the opening ceremony. PHOTO: REUTERS
Former Brazilian athlete Vanderlei Cordeiro lights the Olympic cauldron with the Olympic torch.
Former Brazilian athlete Vanderlei Cordeiro lights the Olympic cauldron with the Olympic torch. PHOTO: AFP
The Olympic Flag is raised in the stadium during the Opening Ceremony.
The Olympic Flag is raised in the stadium during the Opening Ceremony. PHOTO: EPA
Performers dancing during the segment called "look for similarities and celebrate differences".
Performers dancing during the segment called "look for similarities and celebrate differences". ST PHOTO

RIO DE JANEIRO - The first Olympic Games in South America carried a distinctly Brazilian flavour as Rio welcomed the world on Friday night (Aug 5) with a spectacular opening ceremony.

Under the backdrop of the towering Christ the Redeemer statue, the city's iconic Maracana Stadium, home to countless sporting moments, was again the venue for another chapter in Brazil's history.

The 78,000 spectators, and an estimated three billion television viewers, were treated to a four-hour spectacle that lived up to director Fernando Meirelles's promise of an intimate and colourful party.

Besides showcasing the unique culture of Brazil and its deep connection with dance and music, the theme of environmentalism was also highlighted, no surprise considering the country is at the heart of the Amazon rainforest.

Fireworks were shot into the sky several times but it was the clever use of simple objects like string and boxes that created several stunningly visual segments.

At one point, the stage went dark and became an enormous catwalk for local girl and supermodel Gisele Bundchen to strut her stuff accompanied by the famous bossa nova tune 'Girl From Ipanema'.

While Pele, now 75, was widely expected to light the cauldron, Brazil's legendary footballer declined the honour on health reasons.

Instead, it was the much lesser-known marathoner Vanderlei de Lima, who trotted up the steps as the last person to conclude the epic torch relay that began 95 days ago in Greece's Temple of Hera.

De Lima, whose moment in time came when he was leading the marathon at the 2004 Athens Games before he was attacked by a spectator, causing him to finish third.

He was subsequently awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal, named after the International Olympic Committee founder, for his sportsmanship.

Besides showcasing the unique culture of Brazil and its deep connection with dance and music, the theme of environmentalism was also highlighted, no surprise considering large swathes of the Amazon rainforest occupy the country.

One of the favourite segments of any opening ceremony has been the Parade of Nations and this was no different as Greece, the birthplace of the Summer Games, led out all 206 countries plus, for the first time, a refugee team.

National badminton player Derek Wong was Singapore's flagbearer and was accompanied by 15 other Team Singapore athletes plus 13 officials. The Republic has sent a contingent of 25 athletes taking part in seven sports, its joint-biggest since the 1956 Melbourne Games.

They were cheered on by Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also the Singapore National Olympic Council president.

All the South American contingents were greeted with loud applause but the biggest cheer of the night was reserved for the host, who marched out the last per tradition and were led by modern pentathlete Yane Marques.

It was then left to Brazil's acting president Michel Temer, who shared the VIP box with state leaders like France President Francois Hollande and Argentina's Mauricio Macri, to declare the XXXI Olympiad officially open before 2004 Olympic marathon bronze medallist Vanderlei Lima lit the Olympic cauldron.

Football legend Pele had been tipped by many to be given this honour but the 75-year-old was unable to attend the ceremony due to ill health.

Controversies, from the banning of Russian athletes for doping to the myriad of domestic issues that had plagued Brazil, had dominated much of the build-up to the Rio Games but these were all put aside temporarily as Brazil sambaed the night away.