rio de janeiro, olympics.jpg
Photograph: HINA/ Damir SENČAR /ds

The Rio Olympics got underway Friday with a journey through the history and culture of the host country Brazil, and an environmental message for the world, in a low-budget opening ceremony.

Marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lit the Olympic cauldron at the end of a four-hour show at Maracana Stadium, after acting Brazil President Michel Temer had formally opened the Games of the XXXI Olympiad.

Supermodel Gisele Bundchen strutted through the iconic arena as the song-immortalized Girl from Ipanema, Paulinho Da Viola performed an unplugged version of Brazil's national anthem with a small string orchestra, and hundreds of dancers performed to samba, funk and rap tunes, with the famous samba schools also a late part of the show.

The 50,000 spectators and millions of TV viewers witnessed evolution and Brazilian history from the beginning of life, but also a section on environmental protection narrated in part by award-winning actress Judi Dench and Brazil theatre icon Fernanda Montenegro.

"The Olympic dream is now a reality ... Rio is ready to make history," organizing committee chief Carlos Nuzman said.

Welcoming the locals with "Boa noite Criocas" (good evening people from Rio de Janeiro), International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said: "We are living in a world of crises, mistrust and uncertainty."

"Here is our Olympic answer: The 10,000 best athletes in the world, competing with each other, at the same time living peacefully together in one Olympic Village, sharing their meals and their emotions," he added. "In this Olympic world, we are all equal."

Brazil has had to keep in check spending on its Olympics, with the booming country from 2009 - when it was awarded the Games - slumping into its worst recession since the 1930s. The opening ceremony reportedly cost about half of the 42-million-dollar extravaganza in London four years ago.

Brazil is going through a political crisis as well. Temer, taking over from Dilma Rousseff who faces an impeachment trial, was not officially introduced at the start of the ceremony as originally planned. Only Bach was presented to the crowd, which included heads of state and government such as French President Francois Hollande.

Temer also faced massive jeers from the crowd after he declared the Games open.

According to tradition, Greece started a long parade of nations through Maracana, with 207 teams represented. Hosts Brazil got the biggest cheer along with the Refugee Olympic Team, while Russia were received with mixed reactions in connection with a doping scandal which could have seen them barred from the Games.

Flagbearers included US swim star Michael Phelps and British Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, another tennis great in Spain's Rafael Nadal, and Iran's Olympic and Paralympic archer Zahra Nemati in her wheelchair.

The athletes symbolically planted tree seeds that will be later be used to create an athletes' forest in Rio, in line with the environmental theme of the opening ceremony. The Olympic rings were also formed by trees.

Brazilian sports greats including footballer Marta, basketballer Oscar Schmidt and 800-metre runner Joaquin Cruz carried the Olympic flag into the stadium, after former Kenyan great Kipchoge Keino became the first recipient of the Olympic Laurel.

De Lima - who was famously denied 2004 Olympic gold when attacked by a spectator late in the race, having to settle instead for bronze - lit the Olympic cauldron as the last of 12,494 people who have carried the torch since it was lit in April at the birthplace of the ancient games in Olympia, Greece.

The cauldron will next move to downtown Rio, where it will burn throughout the Games. They run through August 21, with some 10,500 athletes competing for 306 gold medals.

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