“It does not make sense to be extravagant in this moment.” The opening ceremony for the Olympics is on, and the creative team explains that it will be a low-tech show. “We have a message, and it’s not about Brazil,” Fernando Meirelles, the show’s Creative Director, explains in an interview. “It’s really about the world, about mankind.” Brazil is in economic crisis right now, which shows up in athlete housing conditions that are unsatisfactory to some out-of-towners, and locals protesting outside the stadium that their country shouldn’t be spending its limited funds on other people. The country is also deep in the embarrassing waters of political controversy, with multiple presidents facing indictment and impeachment, and it suffers the outside health threat of the Zika virus. It does not make sense to be extravagant, Meirelles says. This ceremony’s message will not be all about Brazil, which sounds strange to my American ears.
The world has come to Brazil, and it brings its own tensions and apprehensions and entitled expectations with it, depending on which nation to which we’re referring. People who haven’t come have turned their eye toward the televised show, and maybe now that the games are on, the media has moved past its coverage of Can you believe how badly prepared this place is? Now we can cheer on the athletes, one of whom swam three-and-a-half hours in the Aegean Sea to get nineteen people in a sinking boat to safety, and all that long night, it sounds like Yusra Mardini thought she might die, and–seriously? The apartments aren’t nice enough isn’t going to cross her mind, if I might hazard a guess. But even if it does, still. The world has come to Brazil, to participate together in these games, in this year 2016.
In the US, unlikely candidates are running for president, and many people dislike them for one reason or another. One of them stands up front, all bombast and disdain for the people in his own country who are neediest, and especially for the people outside his country who would come looking for relief—for the people of anywhere who aren’t the best, who don’t win, who find the cards stacked against them in circumstances outside their control. “I like people who weren’t captured!” he brazens about American POW’s. Songs from my daughter’s Disney Pandora station start reeling through my head, especially Gaston’s mad crush on Belle with more than a touch of NPD. Belle is the most beautiful girl in town. That makes her the best! And don’t I deserve the best?! “We’ll have so much winning,” the man running for president is famous for saying, and I think by “we,” he means himself, and to hell with other people who can’t get ahead.
At the beginning of the coverage for these Olympic games, the current two-term president is drawing his time to a close, and many people feel strongly about him one way or another. Tonight, in a pre-ceremony interview, he answers the question, Is there a larger value to the Olympics than bringing home the gold? His response is straight out of any book or essay by Marilynne Robinson, and I about jump out of my seat when I hear him say the Olympics “builds a sense of common humanity, a sense of empathy,” and how hearing the back stories of the athletes shows us another place, another person we might not usually consider important. And then we can hold that person in imagination, I think, remembering Marilynne Robinson.
“I suspect,” he says, “particularly for Americans, who sometimes, because we’re such a big country, don’t always feel as if, unless there’s bad news out there, that we need to know much about any place else, it’s a nice introduction to the world, and I think that kind of empathy and that sense of healthy competition can carry over beyond the Olympics.”
He says this while America’s angry Gaston shouts about how we were once a great nation, and we will be again, and I know he actually means the Greatest, and I suspect he means we’ll be the only country that matters, or, barring that, the country that matters most. But, “The Olympics build a sense of empathy,” our current president says. They show us other stories than our own.
I’m for hearing these stories. For understanding people and cities and countries and ways of life I’ve never seen, for being moved to empathy by other lives. Did you notice how, in the opening performances, Brazil did not turn away from the fact of its racial (and its religious and its political) tensions, but in a wonderfully tense moment, showed the people divided, each group on its own separate square of light, the people almost sparring, showing that these problems are ongoing and present and real? Did you see, in possibly the most powerful moment of the Cirque du Soleil-inspired performance, the black men and women wheeling and marching their way, belabored, across the sea, across fields, even while heavy blocks weighed them down, only to emphasize the strength and beauty of the dancers all the more? My God, did you see them?
Two weeks ago, in 2016, a number of people reacted against our current First Lady’s mention of slaves building the White House. Who wants to be reminded of slavery? Isn’t that over and done with? Why are we still talking about it? It is uncomfortable to hold these people in imagination, the ones who were forced to cross the sea—the ones who survived and, worse, the ones who didn’t—who had children in this land, and their children had children, and they were never free here, not even after freedom. And these enslaved descendants of slaves participated—by no choice of their own, remember—in building this house that stands for democracy, for the best and freest possible form of government. To imagine what that must have been like, building the White House: the living conditions, the sleeping quarters, the food and the treatment, and even– hear me–even if all those elements of job were good, still.
To imagine our way into what being enslaved does to a human being’s psyche, to his perception of himself, to developing even a shred of a possibility of self-respect. This is unpleasant. This is what Marilynne Robinson means by holding others in imagination, knowing their experience and their needs, understanding them and really knowing what they’ve been through. The acrobatic artists roll swinging through the gigantic wheels across the stage. Brazil, for its part, on this evening, in this ceremony, at least, has not looked away.
So I am watching, and at moments, the show is a lower-budget-than-usual mix of blurred lights and dancing souls—but the acrobatics! This show is performance-based: people, not electronics. It might be difficult to tell what is going on (though perhaps NBC’s coverage is to blame for that), and maybe Russia’s 2014 opening-ceremony love affair with itself was more visually stunning, but the marvelous dancing, and the crowd in the background, singing, whooping, cheering!
Did you hear what it sounded like? Joy.
All those people, real people, down there on the arena floor. There is friction outside the stadium: protestors, poverty, and crime remind us that it is as deep and raw as America’s, it seems, but tonight, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the world came to Brazil, and instead of putting on a performance to try and prove the country’s own greatness, the Brazilian creative team gave us a long and intense dance sequence. In doing so it acknowledged the disadvantaged of its own country, the people living in the favelas, the slums, up on the mountain, in the center, yet on the periphery. “We decided to create a ceremony for the world,” says Meirelles. The world came to its doorstep, and Brazil did not look away from the least of these. It celebrated its own history and culture, unflinching even at the bad parts, and it invited everyone to watch, and to join in.
I am sitting in the living room watching the opening ceremony, the interviewing and the performing, the wild breakdancing, the environmentalism, even, and the joy. I am thinking about America. America is frightened of so many things about itself: its own history, its minority groups and disenfranchised citizens, certain outside threats, even the living and health conditions in Rio. We fear because We are the greatest! We are entitled to have the best! We are so afraid that we can’t see straight into other people’s realities. America needs nothing so much as a mirror. America needs the Olympics this year to be in Brazil.