Rio 2016 opening through Kenyan eyes

Rio 2016 opening through Kenyan eyes

I finally have an Olympic ticket in my hand. More importantly, this square piece of paper is the one that allowed me witness the magnificent opening ceremony of the biggest sports carnival on the planet at the iconic Maracana Stadium in Rio.

Although it lacked the opulence of previous editions such as Sydney 2000 or London 2012 because Brazil was keen to cut costs in the face of runaway inflation, what unfolded was undoubtedly a career highlight.

It was another compelling reason why I chose journalism, to be at the centre of history.

The predominant colours were white and green although the multi-coloured Olympic rings stayed true to their nature.

The instructions on the ticket were very clear. The gates opened at 4:30 pm Brazil time and the ceremony started almost three hours later at 7:15am that was the wee hours of the morning in Kenya.

I accessed the stadium through Gate D, then found my way to Level 3, Block 304 before winding past excited humanity to settle in Row 9, Seat 9.

It was a seamless process despite the tens of thousands that came to witness the spectacle and I could only dream of the day Kenya will attain such levels of efficiency.

What would one give to attend an Olympic opening ceremony? And how do you adequately prepare for one? And what are the chances that I will ever attend another one?

Those were some of the questions I asked myself as our Uber driver wound through Rio’s heavy traffic on the way to the Maracana, the only thing that reminded me of Nairobi. Here, the online cab service drivers are not on strike in contrast to the situation I left at home.

On a normal day it would take about 10 minutes to reach the iconic stadium but Friday, or is it Saturday, was no normal day and thus our driver routinely cursed in Portuguese as he drove us down dark streets to evade the chocker-blocked main streets.

Oh yes, they do ‘nyongoa’ (seek alternative routes) here to evade traffic jams too!

The reason behind the ‘speed of stop’ traffic was most of the roads were cordoned off to vehicles not accredited for the Olympics so his GPS system kept giving him alternative routes that led to dead ends. Their ‘nyongoaring’ has gone digital.

Finally he dumped us in front of a police barrier and pointed down the street indicating we should walk. Before he took off in haste for the next client.

Since arriving in Brazil, there have been reports of high profile muggings targeted at visiting journalists so; the tension was palpable as I approached a police officer.

The latter day adage of ‘Google is your friend’ applied as I turned to the Internet search engine to find the Portuguese translation of ‘Is this street safe.’

Mustering all the confidence, I posed, “E esta rua segura?” and fortunately, he nodded back in approval, no doubt bemused by my attempts to sound like a local.

The walk took 25 minutes, as the 10 minutes ride from our hotel to stadium appeared to take eternity but the cause was simple, as we approached the gates, the surge of humanity grew.

Once in a while we found pockets of youth whose disposition informed us they could easily rob us and no one would intervene but the police presence here is so heavy that we are assured of our security.

There were a few protestors on the street decrying the deteriorating standards of living in the country but they are drowned out by thousands of patriotic Brazilians dressed in yellow and eager to get to the Maracana.

Finally we got to the remodelled cathedral of Brazil sport to find a queue to stretching back as far as the eye can see.

Applying the ‘African science’ of jostling and hustling, we elbowed our way to the front as the eagerness to get in before the 8pm start of the ceremony (2am Kenyan time) got the better of my cameraman and I.

By the time we got to the outer perimeter of the stadium, we had already been searched twice, once on the road and once at the entrance.

Finding our seats was not hard bearing in mind the Maracana is well marked and some of the ushers speak English.

We chanced on the East Africa Breweries-sponsored supporters who won the lucky lottery ticket courtesy of their brand Tusker #TwendeRio campaign. At least we now had local company adding to the excitement.

On my left was a German couple that told me they have attended three World Cup opening ceremonies and this was their fourth. The man is an electrical engineer and his wife is a dentist.

Their love for the Olympics has taken them around the world every four years and when they return to their home in Cologne the stories they have are limitless.

This was my first time to attend an Olympic opening and I was surprised to discover that a lot happens before the actual ceremony commences.

-Sizeable crowd-

Fireworks explode during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
Fireworks explode during the opening ceremony. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Once a sizeable crowd was in the stadium the master of ceremony walked into the stadium and gave a few instructions to the crowd.

After that there was a kissing game where the camera would be pointed at a couple in the crowd and they were supposed to kiss almost immediately.

This caused quite a reaction from those watching. Meanwhile as all this is going on the centre of the stadium was still dark and we all wondered what secrets it held.

With five minutes to go the giant screens inside the stadium started counting down and when the number 1 was displayed the whole stadium went ecstatic in anticipation.

For the next hour organizers took the audience through the rich history of Rio-de-Janeiro followed by musical performances that borrow from the Portuguese and African roots of Brazil.

Topics such as slavery and climate change were highlighted in the performances.

To be honest watching an opening ceremony live is very different from watching it on television.

In the stadium, the carnival atmosphere is great and wonderful selfie moments but you also miss out on a lot of action because the naked eye is not as powerful as the camera lenses that capture minute detail of the choreography on show to beam back home.

The march of the athletes is usually a very exciting process on television but in the stadium it seemed to roll on for ages and was only exciting when your country’s name was called.

Getting back to the hotel from the Maracana was an ordeal for another day. For now, we have only two hours to catch sleep before venturing out to do what brought us here, to give you a view from Rio that is outside the live action you will enjoy on television.

Waihiga Mwaura is reporting from Rio de Janeiro, follow his updates on Twitter through the handle @WaihigaMwaura and @citizentvkenya

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