Opening Ceremonies & Isolationism

The Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics was a delight. From beginning to end, the game designers, producers and International Olympic Committee united to attempt something truly ambitious and profound.

Instead of focusing the Ceremony on the home country, a long-standing tradition of glorious patriotism – as seen in London 2012 – and extravagant pageantry – like the mind-blowing scale of Beijing 2008 – the designers wanted to tell a united story, a cohesive story. A narrative-driven, internationally recognizable tale of humanity.

  rio ceremony

In case you missed it, the show is a staggering opening sequence using projection mapping, dancers and large scale wire frame puppets to essentially tell the story not just of Brazil or of humanity but of the whole planet.

A deeply symbolic sequence opens with the crashing ocean waves and the arrival of the first crustaceans meandering on the sea floor. In 20 minutes, the dance and video projection tell the story of evolution, the establishment of the rainforest, the arrival of humans, the colonization of the west, the legacy of slavery, an influx of modern immigration and industry as they each carve their way through the jungle, in the end leaving tiny patches of woods in a giant tapestry of farms and towns before a step-change moves to a city-cape of modern Rio and melds into parkour, hip hop and the most diverse dance party I’ve ever seen.

The politics and undercurrent were astonishing and ambitious. The audacity to open an international celebration with the dark, terrible things which initially brought us together is shockingly different than the white-washed, glorified patriotism usually shared on the world stage.


It was amazing and powerful. A heavier, less saccharine euphoria perhaps than Disneyfied fairy tales of humanity’s glory, but more real and more inclusive. My social feeds lit up with people of color feeling their histories, too, had been validated and included instead of abashedly and tacitly ignored as the ugly elephant in the room.

The environmental strand, too, would come to define the ceremony, and I hope the Games. Just before the Parade of Nations, a video montage explained flat out facts and figures of climate change.

Straight up. No deniers. No debate. Here is the temperature. Here is a map of the polar ice caps. Here are our forests.

And then a poem shares the hope of a single seed, while Judi Dench, the voice of Englishness everywhere, translates, ending with a single child and single sapling in the empty center of the vast arena.

2016 Rio Olympics - Opening ceremony - Maracana - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - 05/08/2016. A performer takes part in the opening ceremony.  REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth  FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.

Shortly thereafter it is explained every one of the 11,000 Olympians in Rio would be planting the seed of an indigenous Brazilian tree. These delegate-heroes would together be building a collective legacy to last for generations and serve not only Brazil, but the entire planet’s ecosystem.

Rio also switched up some long standing ceremonial traditions. Usually the Parade of Nations ends with each team corralled into designated sections, for a big pan shot of countries all neatly in rows or in a spiral. Rio instead left the floor open for teams to mix and mingle and dance together as the fireworks gonged across the sky. It was beautiful chaos.

And as the news has widely covered, the IOC announced for the first time there would be a Refugee Team competing under the Olympic Flag. Twenty stateless citizens of our planet, several from war-torn South Sudan and Syria, were welcomed not only with cheer from the crowd, but a really lovely speech from the Olympic Committee about how they were an important and beautiful part of our diversity and were very, very welcome.

Mic bloody drop.

rio fireworks

The only thing more unbelievable than the wonder and power and thoughtfulness of the Ceremony design was the frankly appalling American television coverage.

A Ceremony which was about 3 hours long took just over 5 hours to watch because there were so many commercials, which is already gross.

drudge rio tweet

But the belated start time in the US (by choice!) and the advert lag left us so far behind I had to stop second-screening with friends across the globe because it was nothing but spoiler alerts.


For an event that’s supposed to bring us together I felt left out and alone. Way to isolate the American viewer, NBC. Jesus, it even needed its own US Twitter feed because things were so off track.

The commentary itself was deeply sad, too. I don’t even have the heart to read through transcripts and find quotes of all the accidental, unthinking imperialist  and self-righteous crap they were spouting. It was a pretty constant stream.

Some examples:

They’re fine telling us at one point Brazil had the largest slave trade in the world but explicitly, conspicuously avoiding the words “evolution” and “climate change”. In sections of commentary meant to explain and narrate, being selective  is uncouth.

More than two hundred countries parade. The white people have “great outfits” and when beautiful Libyan women come out in traditional garb, they are in “costumes”.  Words matter people, do your homework.

On that note, don’t mispronounce nation-states.

As small countries and poor ones send teams of 2, 3, 20 people, the announcers scramble for something to say, usually defaulting to “He’s known as the [insert someone American] of [insert the guy’s home country]” — as if everyone uses American popular culture as their baseline and wouldn’t possibly refer to their own heroes as stand-alone victors and not copies of someone from here.

There is only one sentence to share about the Democratic Republic of Congo with millions of viewers. The important thing? Muhammad Ali’s famous Rumble in the Jungle happened there. Not, you know, anything about the Congo or the people who actually live there.

A string of almost snide acknowledgements of every country that has never won a medal, yet little discussion of the Russians or Chinese medal counts which have sometimes rivaled our own.

When Brazil celebrates an innovator and pioneer in aviation, the timeline with The Wright Brothers is contentious. Instead of explaining the context or parsing the ambiguity, Matt Lauer shouts over the stadium announcer “I don’t know how our viewers back home are going to feel about this!”

 I shouldn’t say everything they said was awful. It was obvious they were trying. It was meant to be informative and helpful. There were plenty of lovely things said, too. But when genuine effort, thousands of dollars (and countless interns and four years to prepare) yields this kind of blindingly insular partiality I despair.

And it was only worsened by Team USA itself. The IOC President gives a speech about unity and solidarity and brotherhood through sport, about the importance of us being stronger together. Camera cut to Team USA just chanting it’s own name over and over again and aggressively thrusting “We’re Number 1!” fingers in the air.

I get that there is pride. I get that there are wonderful things to celebrate as an individual sportsman and in representing your country. I get they are excited. But this event is for commonality, unity and peace. It’s like we missed the entire point of the pageant.

After two Olympics abroad, I felt like I was watching a train wreck of overly-commercialized pandering and insularity.

Last night, America was a douchebag. A giant, gloating, disinterested douchebag. A sore winner, poorly prepared, and accidentally racist over and over again.

America, we are more than this. And you’re breaking my heart.

In an arena representing billions, in an event deigned to bring us together in peaceful celebration — in an evening for the first time acknowledging the realities of millions who’ve been sidelined and denied in the war games of patriotism and colonialism — this is the moment to be a part of something.

To contribute. To listen and be open. To be generous with yourselves and others.

It was a beautiful night. It did so much and for that I am grateful and in awe.

But it hurts to imagine what grandness could have been achieved if we’d all been pulling in the same direction. What grace and glory lie ahead when we get in the game for real.

May the spirit of the Games live on. May it visit these shores again soon.

2 Responses to “Opening Ceremonies & Isolationism”
  1. I’m disappointed I missed the opening ceremony coverage. Due to the time difference, it was the middle of the night when it was shown on TV here, and I wasn’t prepared to get up out of my warm bed at 2 am!


What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: