RIO DE JANEIRO–Vivacious Brazil tries to sweep all its present troubles under the carpet of universal sporting unity on Friday night (7 a.m. Saturday in Manila) when it rings the curtain up on the 31st Olympic Games in this epicenter of the samba and the Zika.
An expectedly sizzling four-hour program intertwining the Portuguese-speaking nation’s Afro-influenced culture with its perky sounds and melodies will welcome the approximately 15,000 athletes, including 13 from the Philippines, and officials from 204 nations to the quadrennial competition.
Preliminary hostilities in women’s football and three other sports, out of the 41-sport Summer Games roster, may have commenced ahead of the grand opening ceremonies in Rio’s massive football mecca, Maracana Stadium, but the bigger battles for medals will be fought only starting Saturday.
Three Filipinos–boxer Charly Suarez, swimmer Jessie Khing Lacuna and tablenetter Ian Lariba–plunge into action less than 12 hours after the Maracana bash with Lariba the only one guaranteed to remain in the hunt even if she drops her first match.
To the first-time Olympian Lariba belongs the honor of bearing the Philippine tri-color at the iconic 74,738-seat stadium during the parade of delegations. As the country’s first-ever Olympic bidder in table tennis, she was picked for the task over three-time Games campaigners Marestella Torres-Sunang (long jump) and Hidilyn Diaz (weightlifting).
A massive security force rollout involving 22,500 Army and Forca Nacional soldiers will ensure that the Games, many to be fought in Rio’s hastily finished, mountain-enveloped Olympic Park, is safe for both athlete and fan.
On the day of the opening ceremonies, the Athletes Village will be cordoned off, not unlike Wednesday night when a bomb scare prevented chief of mission Joey Romasanta, three members of the PH team and about a thousand other athletes from entering the heavily guarded compound for over an hour.
Football great Pele, the brightest among Brazil’s retired galaxy of sports heroes, will light the Games cauldron. Just like “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali before him in Atlanta 1992, Pele will carry the torch with the flame lit by the sun in the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece, where the maiden modern-day Olympics was staged.
Renowned Brazilian film director Fernando Meirelles (City of Gold) and producer Daniella Thomas have conspired to create an opening extravaganza budgeted at a tenth of the Danny Boyle’s London 2012 show.
The mood around Rio was a bit subdued, though, on the eve of the first Olympics to be held in South America.
There was a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty among the athletes and Rio’s population as the virulent Zika virus lurked like a nasty ghost in many neighborhoods.
Accusations of treachery flew among the country’s top politicians over botched economic initiatives related to the construction of Olympic facilities.
All Filipino athletes, including golfer Miguel Tabuena who arrives here on Saturday, will see action in controversial, over-the-budget competition venues located in the tourist hub of Ipanema on the coast of Copacabana. The Olympic Golf Course is part of reclaimed land that borders Rio’s sprawling Olympic Park.
“Our 13 athletes are well prepared,” said Romasanta. “There’s nothing more we could ask of them. They are here because they are the best in the Philippines and because they fearlessly answered the call of national duty.”
Romasanta did not show it but he was still hurting from the last-minute withdrawal of Angelo Que and Dottie Ardina.
The two golfers feared catching the Zika virus, which is borne by a breed of mosquito that multiplies in the tiniest pool of water and defies many of the insecticides deployed against it.