RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil and the world bid farewell Sunday to the first Olympic Games in South America, a 16-day spectacle that combined numerous highlight reel moments with ugly and even bizarre episodes that sometimes overshadowed the competitions.
Thousands of fans braved strong winds and sporadic rains to watch the closing ceremony in iconic Maracana Stadium, a finale meant to be both one last bash and to take care of some business – namely signal the transition to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.
The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, accepted the flag from International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, signalling the end of the 2016 games and the transition.
There’s widespread expectation that the games in Tokyo, one of the world’s richest, most recognizable, cosmopolitan cities, will run more smoothly than they have in Rio. But there’s also worry in Japan over whether the Olympics will eventually further drag down an economy that has been struggling for decades.
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Whatever the future holds, Sunday’s party was all about Brazil, a final party designed to be more low-key than the opening, which focused heavily on Rio. The ceremony opened with original footage of Alberto Santos Dumont, the man that Brazilians recognize as the inventor of the airplane. Brazilians also believe he is the first to ever wear a wristwatch, an invention made by a friend so he could see the time in flight.
The theme of the show was “Brazilians can do with their bare hands,” a nod to the emerging economy of the world’s fifth most populous nation.
Dressed in colorful feathers, dozens of dancers formed in the shape of the arches of Lapa, a popular area of Rio akin to Roman ruins, then morphed to make the shape of iconic Sugarloaf before quickly changing again, this time to the official 2016 symbol.
Samba legend Martinho da Vila, whose tunes make their way into many popular telenovelas, sang “Carinhoso,” or “Affectionate.”
Then the athletes poured in under light rain, waving their flags while many shook their bodies to samba-infused pop that made the stadium feel like a Carnival parade. Britain’s athletes wore shoes with soles that lit up in changing colours of red, white and blue, while Tongan taekwondo athlete Pita Taufatofua danced onstage in a grass skirt as a DJ performed, reprising a moment that captured attention when he carried the flag for his country during the opening ceremony.
Penny Oleksiak carried the flag for Canada at the ceremony, capping a breakout Games for the 16-year-old swimmer from Toronto.
Oleksiak grabbed national attention back home early in the Games by winning four medals, including Canada’s first gold.
Canada won an impressive 22 medals in Rio to equal the total from the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the high-water mark for a non-boycotted Games.
“During the past 19 days, Canadian Olympians – both veterans and newcomers – produced many memorable Olympic moments,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement.
“Canadians, especially our young women and girls, were incredibly inspired by our female Olympians who were a force to be reckoned with throughout the Games. I know the impact of our athletes’ accomplishments will live on and be replayed in playgrounds and on sport fields for many, many years to come.”
The show widened its lens beyond the postcard city of Rio to greater Brazil, a massive country with a land mass slightly larger than the continental United States. There was a tribute to cave paintings of some of the first inhabitants of the Americas, in Serra da Capivara, in Northeastern Brazil, today the nation’s poorest region.
Spectators got to see performers shake it to frevo, a frenetic dance that – if it’s even possible – makes high-octane samba seem like a staid ballroom affair. Holding a small umbrella, the dancers jumped up and down, seeming to march and incorporate acrobatics at the same time.
They shook it to “Vassourinhas,” which means “small brooms,” a popular song that was also the name of a famous club in the northeastern city of Recife.
The show also built performances around “saudade,” which means anything from longing for someone to sadness to remembering good times. It is one of the most important words in Brazilian Portuguese. Lights flashed translations for the word in many languages, and a group of women sang “Mulher Rendeira,” or “Lace-making Woman,” a nod to the country’s African heritage. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery, in 1888.
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The games had many memorable moments, both for Brazilian competitors at home and athletes from around the world.
Soccer-crazed Brazil got partial payback against Germany, winning gold two years after a 7-1 World Cup final shellacking that left many in Latin America’s largest nation fuming. American gymnast Simone Biles asserted her dominance with four golds, swimmer Michael Phelps added five more to up his staggering total to 23 and the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, put on his usual show with three golds just days before turning 30 years old.
But there were also ugly episodes, like American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s fabricated story about a harrowing robbery that was actually an intoxicated-fueled vandalism of a gas station bathroom, and bizarre issues like Olympic diving pools going from crystal blue to gunky, algae green – at a time when Rio’s water quality in open waters is one of the biggest local environmental issues.
Many people, from Brazilians to International Olympic Committee members, will spend time analyzing how things went for the Rio Games in the months ahead. But on Sunday, one strong sentiment was relief – that despite some problems, overall the games went well.
That wasn’t a given going in. The Zika virus scared away some competitors and tourists, rampant street crime in Rio and recent extremist attacks around the world raised fears about safety and Brazil’s political crisis, and the economic angst behind it, threatened to cast a pall over the competitions.