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Sustainability Front and Center in the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony

Though there may have been controversy surrounding the cleanliness of Brazil’s waters for this summer Olympics, the Rio 2016 Opening Ceremony revolved entirely around the idea of environmental stewardship and sustainability.

Not subtly so, either. A boy took the stage and kneeled next to a sapling to kick off a segment that was entirely about the importance of Brazil’s natural resources. Dancers spun around green strings. Bicyclists with greenery overflowing from their baskets rode in advance of each country during the Parade of Nations.

Even the athletes in attendance were presented with a seed of a tree native to Brazil, along with a cartridge of soil, which they were to plant to form an “Athletes Forest.” This was not just about environmentalism, but specific to the reforestation efforts, smacking viewers in the face with the reality of what a global economy truly means. Of course, it was also no mistake that the famous Olympic rings appearing towards the end of the ceremony were made out of trees as well.

However, in addition to clear environmentalism and a concern over Brazil’s forests, there was another sustainable element to these ceremonies: fiscal sustainability. There were criticisms of the ceremony being too “minimalist,” but director Fernando Meirelles had a different perspective.

“It is not a good message for the world, when 40 percent of the homes in Brazil have no sanitation, you can’t really be spending 1 billion reals ($315 million) for a show. In the end I feel good that I am not spending money that Brazil hasn’t got.”

The ceremony ended up costing $10 million. To put this in perspective, London’s 2012 opening ceremony cost over ten times that amount.

As a fitting close to the ceremony, and a fitting meta-commentary on these Olympics as a whole, the cauldron holding the flame is one of the smallest in Olympic history. The symbolism behind this is supposed to be the conservation of fossil fuels.

There are those who malign the ceremony as being too heavy-handed, or in light of Rio’s water troubles, outright hypocritical. But given the fact that Brazil, in addition to other resource-rich countries, has had to deal with the aftermath of global consumption far more than any recent host of the Olympics, perhaps the pushback is a bit on the defensive side. The stark presentation merely highlighted an inescapable reality. The only question truly worth asking is whether the strong sustainability message from Rio will have a lasting effect.

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