Rio gets Olympic party started

Fireworks are set off during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 5. (AFP)
Fireworks are set off during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Aug 5. (AFP)

RIO DE JANEIRO, Aug 6, (AFP): The Rio Games launched with a flamboyant spectacle headlined by supermodel Gisele Bundchen on Friday as a doom-laden Olympic build-up gave way to an energetic party atmosphere at the fabled Maracana stadium. Marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro lit the cauldron after an exuberant show of Brazilian cultural touchstones and breathtaking pyrotechnics — and a compulsory burst of samba.

Cordeiro was a left-field but touching choice after he was famously attacked by a spectator while leading the 2004 Athens Olympics marathon late in the race. But in a reminder of Brazil’s parlous political and economic situation, boos and jeers greeted interim president Michel Temer as he declared South America’s first Olympic Games open. Temer took over when impeachment proceedings started against President Dilma Rousseff, whose supporters accuse him of plotting against the suspended leader. The jeering ended only when it was drowned out by a loud barrage of fireworks. Despite the resentful undercurrent, and protests against the Games just hours earlier, spirits were high among the athletes, performers, fans and officials at the 78,000-capacity Maracana. Brazilian singer Paulinho da Viola sang the national anthem to set off the show of laser lights and elaborate dances highlighting Brazil’s history and rise as an emerging power.

Brazil’s Gisele Bundchen strutted across the arena to the iconic “Girl From Ipanema” before Greece, home of the ancient Olympics, led out the colourful athletes’ parade. More than 10,000 athletes from 207 teams took part, with the biggest cheers reserved for the specially formed refugee team and the joyous Brazilian contingent. Iran’s flag bearer was wheelchair-bound Zahra Nemati, their first ever female flagcarrier who will compete in archery despite being paralysed in both legs. The Russian delegation, battling allegations of state-backed doping, got only lukewarm applause when they entered the stadium. Each athlete was presented with a seed and a cartridge of soil to enable them to plant a native tree of Brazil, which will ultimately form an “Athletes Forest” made up of 207 different species — one for each delegation. Indigenous tribes and dueling dance groups were among the highlights of a show low on technology but high on invention. The evening’s overwhelming theme was environmental protection. An early opening sequence depicted the birth of life, culminating in the sprouting of a green entanglement of leaves from the stadium floor depicting the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous Brazilians then performed dances before creating huge “Ocas” or native huts in the center of the stage. That gave way to an exuberant, joyous party which encompassed Brazil’s diverse musical and cultural traditions. The celebratory atmosphere followed fresh protests, when about 3,000 people waving signs saying “No to the Olympics!” gathered outside a luxury hotel where many athletes are staying. Brazil has spent more than $10 billion on new infrastructure and preparing for the Games at a time of economic crisis.

The billions lavished on the Games has angered many Brazilians as the country grapples with a tanking economy and mass social problems. Friday’s ceremony lifts the curtain on a more than two-week sporting festival featuring superstars like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. Track and field will see Jamaica’s Bolt aim to defend his 100m, 200m and 4x100m crowns by clinching all three for the third straight Games. Gymnastics, meanwhile, could unearth a new heroine in America’s teenage star Simone Biles, while rugby and golf return to the Olympic programme after gaps of 92 years and 112 years respectively. The Rio Olympics got off to a troubled start on Saturday as a loud blast erupted near the cycling race’s finish line and a bullet ripped through the media tent at the equestrian venue. Long queues also formed outside venues — as competition went on inside — as volunteers and security staff struggled to cope with a sudden influx of fans. Brazilian military carried out a controlled explosion near the Copacabana finish line of Rio Olympics men’s road cycling race on Saturday, witnesses said.

Military bomb disposal experts were at the scene of the explosion and kept crowds away with police. The explosion stunned crowds gathering for the end of the race. The race leaders were about 100 kilometers (60 miles) away at the time. Elsewhere at the Deodoro venue, onlookers were shocked when a bullet pierced the temporary venue housing media, leaving visible holes in the fabric roof and wall. It made for an unsettling day one of the Rio Games, which were launched in a blaze of colour by Friday’s flamboyant opening ceremony. But in further violence on Friday, police gunned down a mugger outside the ceremony venue, the Maracana stadium, and a woman was shot and killed by armed assailants near the Olympic Boulevard.

The events overshadowed a busy opening day of action in which little-known American teenager Virginia Thrasher became the first gold-medallist, in the women’s 10m air rifle, the first of 306 medal events. Rio Olympics spokesman Mario Andrada apologised for the long queues and admitted the tournament needed to raise its game. Thrasher, 19, fired the first shot for the United States when she shocked China’s Du Li and Yi Siling to win the Games’ first gold in the women’s 10m air rifle. Golds were also on offer in weightlifting, archery, fencing and judo, while rugby made its return to the Olympic programme after a gap of 92 years. Camille Grassineau scored the first try of the tournament — and the first ever Olympic try in rugby’s sevens format — as France’s women beat Spain 24-7.

Britain’s Adam Peaty launched his Rio Olympic campaign with a bang, clocking a world record 57.55sec in the heats of the 100m breaststroke on Saturday. Peaty lowered the world mark of 57.92 that he set in London on April 17, 2015. Belgian Greg Van Avermaet won a sprint finish to claim gold in the men’s cycling road race at the Olympic Games in Rio on Saturday. Van Avermaet pipped Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark into second with Rafal Majka of Poland taking bronze at the end of the gruelling 237.5km race. It continued a stunning summer for the 31-year-old Van Avermaet, who won a stage of the Tour de France last month wile also holding the coveted race leader’s yellow jersey for three days. A dream year for Van Avermaet has also included winning his first major weeklong stage race, Tirreno-Adriatico, and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad one-day classic. He and Fuglsang caught runaway leader Majka 1.5km from the finish on the world famous Copacabana beach before the latter two contested the sprint finish.

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