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FEATURE Rio dazzles with low-cost opening party marred by political tensions By Alexandra Mayer-Hohdahl, dpa

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The Rio Olympics officially opened Friday with a playful celebration of Brazil‘s history and music, but the Maracana Stadium also echoed with boos as the country‘s political tensions boiled over.

Rio de Janeiro (dpa) - The Rio Olympics kicked off Friday with a colourful opening ceremony that had spectators dancing in the bleachers of the Maracana Stadium, but also struggled to keep a lid on Brazilian political tensions.

"Our admiration for you is even greater because you managed this at a very difficult time in Brazilian history," International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach told the country during the ceremony. "We have always believed in you."

Brazil‘s economic and political crises have overshadowed the Games, the first to be held in South America. Protests have marred the journey of the Olympic torch and also flared up near the Maracana ahead of Friday‘s ceremony, with police deploying tear gas.

Interim President Michel Temer, who has controversially taken over from suspended leader Dilma Rousseff, was not officially introduced at the start of the event as originally planned.

When he declared the Olympics officially opened he was met with loud booing from the Maracana audience, which was swiftly drowned out by music.

Organizing committee chief Carlos Nuzman had earlier drawn jeers too when he spoke of the federal government‘s contribution to the Olympics.

Brazil is also in the middle of a deep recession and has had to keep spending on its Olympics in check. The four-hour opening ceremony‘s tight budget was reportedly about half of the 42-million-dollar extravaganza in London four years ago.

The Rio show nevertheless dazzled with light effects, colourful costumes, singing, dancing, drumming and fireworks as the audience was taken on a journey through Brazil‘s history and its musical diversity.

A tribute to the iconic bossa nova song The Girl from Ipanema featured Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bundchen strutting across the stadium floor in a sparkling, floor-length gown.

Some 1,500 dancers in multi-coloured costumes and wigs brought spectators to their feet when they took to the floor of the stadium to perform to the song Pais Tropical (Tropical Country).

The show then took a more serious turn, focusing on the need for environmental protection, in a country that has struggled with the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Videos showed the climate change-engendered flooding that could affect cities like Rio.

The ecological theme also flowed into the parade of athletes that followed in the stadium, with representatives of the 207 teams competing in Rio symbolically planting tree seeds that will be later used to create an athletes‘ forest in the city.

Each flagbearer - which included stars such as US swim star Michael Phelps and British Wimbledon champion Andy Murray - was also accompanied by a child holding a plant, while the Olympic rings were displayed in green vegetation.

The parade also carried on the whimsical theme of the evening, with each country‘s delegation preceded by a colourful, oversized bike bearing their nation‘s name.

Latin American countries were among those that garnered the loudest applause and cheers from the audience during the parade, along with Olympic heavyweights such as the United States, but also the refugee team that is making a premiere in Rio.

"You are sending a message of hope to all the many millions of refugees around the globe," Bach said. "Now with your great talent and human spirit, you are making a great contribution to society."

Russia, which has been accused of state-sponsored doping but still has more than 270 athletes competing, received a lukewarm reception.

The Brazilian delegation, which according to tradition walked in last, was met with a roar of approval and a flood of green lights inspired by the country‘s flag.

The musical climax of the show came next, with the 12 drum sections of Rio‘s main samba schools rocking the stadium.

The best-kept secret of the ceremony was revealed when marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lit the Olympic cauldron, as the last of the 12,494 people who carried the torch from the birthplace of the ancient games in Olympia, Greece.

Speculation had been high before the ceremony that Brazilian football legend Pele would get the honour of lighting the Olympic fire, but he announced on Friday that he would not attend due to health reasons.

The ancient Games in Greece are said to have had no opening ceremony. The tradition started with the modern Olympics and has undergone a stunning transition from simple openings to flashy spectacles.



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