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Rio Olympics: Santos Dumont, Djibouti, baby oil and NBC

Written By | Aug 6, 2016

WASHINGTON, Aug. 6, 2016 — The opening ceremony of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics was by all accounts a good show. In person, anyway. It was often an unendurable mess on NBC.

You might have enjoyed some of the spectacle between the commercials. You might have enjoyed the samba music if you could hear it over the incessant drivel of Matt Lauer, Meredith Vieira and Hoda Kotb. The Bob Costas voiceover introduction seemed to have been written in a language other than English, then translated, badly.

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The spectacle managed to shine through. It was an Olympic show done on a tight budget, but still it managed to dazzle.

The exact cost is a sensitive issue in Brazil. At one point, the organizers said it would cost less than the $40 million spent in London, but how much less was not revealed. One-tenth the London cost was a widely discussed estimate, or less than one-twentieth the cost of Beijing’s $100 million show.

Brazilians are good at making things work when they have to. They have an expression for it: dar um jeito. We’ll make it work. And for the opening ceremonies, they did. Production designer Daniela Thomas and director Fernando Meirelles opted to employ a high-quality digital projection system rather than more expensive sets, giving them a lot of bang for their bucks.

The production design was lovely.

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Given how high the expectations are for disaster, the fact that the only killings last night were outside the stadium could have been taken as a success. There is still a lot of time for a terrorist attack, the street shooting of an Olympic athlete or an outbreak of disease among those who have to brave Rio’s waters for boating events.

If Brazil is the country of dar um jeito, it’s also the country of se Deus quiser: God willing.

Se Deus quiser, NBC will get a clue by the next Olympics, but the odds are better that you’ll be able to drink from Guanabara Bay without fear of your flesh rotting. Faced with criticism for its tape-delays and heavy-handed presentation, NBC issued a statement via email to Reuters:

It’s not a sports competition. It’s a cultural ceremony that requires deep levels of understanding, with numerous camera angles and our commentary laid over it. We think it’s important to give it the proper context. And primetime is still when the most people are available to watch.

“Deep understanding” isn’t what NBC had on offer. Thomas discussed her research in the favelas, but that discussion seemed condescending, as did her commentary on Brazilian social problems.

Lauer expressed concern on behalf of American nationalists over Santos Dumont and the first airplane. Vieira took almost child-like delight in the name “Djibouti” (it apparently sounds to her like “yer booty”) and her ignorance of geography.

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A note to Lauer et al.: You’re supposed to be journalists. Do your research.

  • The Wright brothers flew their Wright Flyer in 1903, before Alberto Santos Dumont flew his 14-bis in 1906. They demonstrated the workability of heavier-than-air flight with a device that had to be launched into the air and whose landing was essentially a controlled crash. Santos Dumont took that work and turned it into a real airplane that could take off and land in a controlled fashion, not crash. They were all pioneers of whom their respective countries are justifiably proud.
  • Djibouti is a small country on the Horn of Africa, bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia. Show some respect, and don’t babble to fill in air time. Just let us listen to the crowd and the background music if you don’t have anything intelligent to say.

Because of the tape-delayed length of the show and the alphabetical order of the march of countries, you may have missed the entry of the Tongan team, led by Pita Taufatofua. The bare-chested flag-bearer was reportedly the high point of the show, breaking the internet as he strode into the stadium.

There is rampant online speculation that he was sponsored by Vaseline or a baby oil company. No one has ever shone under the lights quite like Taufatofua.

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.