Olympics off to untroubled start despite tumultuous buildup as Brazil shows world template for a more sustainable Games

With some help from supermodel Gisele Bündchen, a team of refugees, thousands of saplings, 12-year-old rapper MC Soffia and an injection of patriotism, organisers hope Rio 2016’s pared down opening ceremony will mark a definitive break with a troubled buildup.

But the country’s political climate was never far from the surface, not least when acting president Michel Temer was loudly booed as he declared the Games open.

Where Danny Boyle marked the start of the London 2012 Games with rings of fire, Rio’s were formed from trees to reflect the environmental theme that run through its opening ceremony.

City of God director Fernando Meirelles utilised a giant digital floor and clever lighting to impressive effect to create a stadium spectacle for a fraction of the cost of previous opening ceremonies, following cuts to the budget.

He had said before the opening ceremony that one of the themes would be gambiarra, which means to make do.

When the sporting action gets under way, organisers are hoping to turn a potential negative into a positive by arguing that a leaner Games could point the way to a more sustainable model for the Olympics.

Dress rehearsals for the ceremony did not go well, but there were no major mishaps on the night apart from a delay in getting spectators into the stadium.

After four hours, the denouement saw samba dancers and carnival revellers join thousands of athletes to a soundtrack provided by Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Anitta.

The three-time French Open champion Gustavo Kuerten carried the flame into the stadium, before passing it to basketball player Hortencia Marcari. She passed it in turn to Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, the marathon runner denied a possible victory at the 2004 Olympics when he was assailed during the race by a defrocked Irish priest, to light the cauldron.

The parade of thousands of emotional, excited athletes from 208 competing nations was a reminder of the ability of the Olympics to retain a certain magic even as they labour under a cloak of corruption and cynicism.

Earlier in the day, thousands of protesters had marched down Copacabana in protest against Temer, whose presence was not announced when it was due to be for fear he would be booed. As he later declared the Games open, he was loudly barracked regardless. Outside the stadium, a smaller group of protesters engaged in a stand off with police.

Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president who has been criticised for allowing Russian athletes to compete in Rio despite compelling evidence of systemic state sponsored doping, received tepid applause.

“All Brazilians can be very proud tonight. With the Olympic Games as a catalyst you have achieved in just seven years what previous generations only dreamed of. You have transformed the city into a modern metropolis and made it even more beautiful. You managed this at a very difficult time in Brazilian history,” said Bach, who remains under huge pressure in the face of cynicism about doping and the modus operandi of the IOC.

When Russia, which will compete with a team of more than 275 athletes after the IOC allowed individual federations to decide on their eligibility, later marched into the famous Maracaña stadium they received a muted reception. In contrast, the specially created refugee team who will compete at the Games for the first time received a huge ovation, as did the hosts.

Fans from Brazil celebrate in the stands during the opening ceremony. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Meirelles sought to reflect the history and diversity of this vast country and the challenges it faces in the present, before moving on to deliver a warning to the world on climate change. An opening section portrayed the history of Brazil with inventive use of the huge digital floor projection, before a section that reflected the emergence of the country’s huge metropolises. Supermodel Bündchen appeared as the Girl From Ipanema, slowly walking the length of the Maracaña pitch.

Brazil’s more recent musical heritage was celebrated to a booming carioca funk soundtrack, including the passinho dance craze born in Rio’s favelas and a star turn by 12-year-old MC Soffia, as the stadium became a huge dancefloor.

Early indications suggested Brazilians were happy with the ceremony. “Better than I expected. It makes me feel optimistic about my country,” said sales manager Lana Morgando. “Right now we have so many problems. This gives us hope.”

But human rights campaigners might argue the inclusion of the popular Happiness Rap by funk singer Ludmilla – “I just want to be happy in the favela where I was born” – had more than a tinge of irony given complaints about forced relocations and police violence linked to Brazil’s run of major sporting events.

That segued into a section on the perils of global warming. Meirelles had been particularly keen to highlight the environmental challenge facing Brazil and the world.

Each athlete was given a seedling to plant in a new forest in the Deodoro zone that will host sports including rugby sevens, shooting, hockey and equestrianism. The 12,000 seeds will form an Athlete’s Forest with 208 species, one for each competing delegation.

Amid myriad other concerns, much of the focus of the buildup has been on the failure to keep promises to clean up the fetid waters of Guanabara Bay, where the sailing will take place.

Amid the global warming segment, Dame Judi Dench appeared with Brazilian actress Fernanda Montenegro to interpret the Carlos Drummond de Andrade poem A Flor e a Nausea. The creative digital effects remained the star of the show, masking the cut-price nature of the spectacle.

But Brazil’s most recognisable celebrity, Pelé, pulled out of the event just hours before it was due to begin. Underscoring how little has gone right for the country recently, the legendary footballer announced his withdrawal due to pain caused by his recent hip-replacement surgery.

An emotional Rio 2016 organising committee president Carlos Nuzman said: “The Olympic dream is now a reality. I am the proudest man alive. I am proud of my city, my country. These are your Games, the first in South America. Rio is ready to make history.” But the crowd jeered when he thanked the federal, state and national governments.

Meirelles said the loss of Pelé made little difference to preparations. A bigger disappointment for him was that the cauldron would be lit by an athlete rather than the environmental activists he had proposed.

He is the third filmmaker in a row to be given the role of creating a live performance that will entertain a global TV audience of hundreds of millions.

Eight years ago, Zhang Yimou’s demonstration of China’s growing power awed the world. Four years later, Boyle’s stagecraft transformed the mood in the UK, which until then had been cynical and pessimistic.

Meirelles said he felt “proud and scared” to follow in their footsteps, but he has had to work in a far tougher environment.

In line with the environmental theme and pared down feel, Rio’s cauldron is intentionally small and low emission. At the end, the flame rose to the skies and was due to be taken to a central point in Rio where a second cauldron would be lit.