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Rio Olympics open with a ceremony both joyous and serious, all with a samba beat

Brazilians pride themselves on “gambiarra” — the talent for making something out of almost nothing.

That sort of shoestring ingenuity has become a necessity at the 2016 Summer Olympics, which have been hit with massive budget cuts and one setback after another.

So it came as no surprise that Friday night’s Opening Ceremony had none of the high-tech wizardry that made the opening of the 2008 Beijing Games memorable. Or elaborate theatrical sets like the 2012 London Games.

Instead, organizers turned Maracana Stadium into an intimate party filled with samba music, spinning lights and wild dancing.

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“We are very used to this, this makeshift and improvising,” said Fernando Meirelles, the creative director. Borrowing an expression from American television, he described it as “being a MacGyver … in fact, MacGyver-ing rocks.”

If it felt a bit homey at first, things would soon turn serious.

The stadium’s stark white floor served as a blank canvas for images of crashing waves and a verdant forest floor. Twisting, luminescent elastic bands descended from above to signify a time when Brazil was covered almost entirely by trees.

In a country that is home to much of the Amazon rainforest, the ceremony was on its way to making a political statement that touched upon historical slavery, modern urban strife and, most of all, climate change and the depletion of natural resources.

“The fact of the budget is irrelevant when you have good ideas,” executive producer Marco Balich said. “I think it’s also the right thing too for this moment in Brazil, and for this moment in the world.”

Meirelles — a director best known for the 2002 film “City of God,” a crime drama set in Rio’s slums — went a step further, taking jabs at right-wing Brazilian congressman Jair Bolsonaro and a noted U.S. politician.

“Bolsonaro will hate the ceremony,” Meirelles tweeted earlier in the day. “Trump also.”

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All of this might seem heavy for a sporting competition, but opening ceremonies tend to deal with aspects of the host city’s history and culture. And Rio 2016 has endured more than its share of troubles.

In the seven years since the International Olympic Committee decided to send the Games to South America for the first time, the Brazilian economy has slipped into a deep recession.

There has been a national scandal that saw much of the political and business elite implicated in multi-billion-dollar corruption. President Dilma Rousseff has been suspended and is facing an impeachment trial.

As for the Games themselves, organizers have been forced to make hundreds of millions in cutbacks while dealing with the Zika virus outbreak, the Russian doping scandal and worries about raw sewage in coastal waters where sailors, rowers and swimmers will compete.

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Yet, as the Opening Ceremony threatened to linger in a somber mood, no such hardships could keep the celebration down for long.

“Stop fighting,” an emcee yelled. “Here’s to diversity.”

In contrast to earlier — when supermodel Gisele Bundchen strolled coolly across the stadium to “The Girl from Ipanema” — 1,500 dancers rushed in, vibrating to an infectious pop tune.

Giant inflatable hands, among the night’s few special effects, transformed from fists into peace signs and a thumbs-up.

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From then, the ceremony focused mainly on Brazil’s trademark joy for life and, in another example of turning a disadvantage around backward, the relatively small stadium seemed cozy.

The athletes soon entered to a thumping backbeat, each one handed a tree seedling that will later be planted in Rio.

Russia, immersed in a scandal that has seen nearly a third of its contingent banned, received loud applause. The biggest cheers were reserved for the 10-member refugee squad, created specifically for these Games, and the home team as it came bouncing in to “Aquarela do Brasil.”

“Those who don’t know us have doubted,” said Carlos Nuzman, president of the organizing committee, adding later: “We never give up.”

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IOC President Thomas Bach said: “Our admiration for you is even greater because you managed this at a difficult time in history.”

Though the crowd booed Brazil’s interim President Michel Temer, attention soon turned back to a Samba beat and the entrance of the torch-bearer, whose identity is always a carefully guarded secret.

The obvious choice would have been soccer icon Pele, who led his country to three World Cup titles. But on Friday he announced that he was too ill to participate.

The honors went to former marathoner Vanderlei de Lima, hardly an international name.

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The crowd gave a roar nonetheless and soon broke into song. For these Games, for this Opening Ceremony, that made sense.

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesWharton


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