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Rio officials hope Pan Am Games aids future Olympics, World Cup bids

7/13/2007

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Fireworks exploded above Rio's
cherished Maracana soccer stadium Friday night as Brazil launched
its biggest show -- and a test of its ability to become a host on
the global sports stage.

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and a crowd of nearly 95,000
packed the stadium to officially open the Pan American Games, the
biggest sporting event this city has seen since the 1950 World Cup.

Maracana was built for that tournament, which Brazil lost to
underdog Uruguay. Brazil went on to win a record five World Cups
but never hosted another, and Brazilians feel a good show at these
games will prove they can handle the 2014 World Cup and perhaps
even the Olympics.

Silva said the games were a showcase for Rio's can-do attitude.

"The Pan American Games are an opportunity not only to show our
happiness and hospitality, but also the quality of our workers,
businessmen and officials," Silva said in statement.

Security was so strict that many fans couldn't get to the
stadium in time. The ceremony began late with many seats empty, and
hundreds of would-be participants were stuck in lines stretching
for blocks outside, waiting to pass through metal detectors and
inspection.

The games will bring 5,662 athletes from 42 countries to Rio.
But there were too many events for the calendar, and women's soccer
and handball began even before Friday's ceremony.

The stadium erupted in a throbbing samba rhythm as 1,500
costumed percussionists took the field in a scene evocative of
Rio's annual Carnival parade. Thousands of fireworks exploded from
127 launching points in the stadium, and 1,000 lights with
computer-coordinated effects colored the field, all to the
pulsating anthem composed for the games, called "Share the
Energy."

Then the delegations of the 42 countries paraded in, the massive
Argentine team followed by a seven-member contingent from
Antigua-Barbuda. Brazilian marathon runner Vanderlei Cordeiro de
Lima, a national hero after he was tackled by a protester while he
led the Olympic marathon in 2004, but returned to finish third,
carried his nation's flag and was loudly applauded.

After a colorful tribute to nature and wildlife with thousands
of costumed dancers, several past Brazilian star athletes carried
in the Pan American torch. It was handed to Joaquim Cruz, the 1984
Olympic gold medalist in the 800-meter run, to light the gas flame
at the 20-foot-high pyre erected on the field, symbolically
beginning the hemisphere-wide games.

The torch has been carried through 51 cities to Rio, and arrived
Friday at the Christ the Redeemer statue -- chosen last week one of
the seven modern wonders of the world -- before coming to Maracana.

Rio overcame charges of cost overruns and misspending to prepare
for its first games. Silva said the final cost was $1.7 billion,
more than three times what the respected Getulio Vargas Foundation
projected it would be in 2001.

Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee,
said he was impressed with the installations and that Rio would be
a strong candidate to stage the 2016 Olympics, boosted by its
experience as host of the Pan Ams.

"The IOC is very pleased to have six excellent candidates, and
Rio has great potential," he said in a meeting with Brazilian
officials Thursday night. "It will be a great legacy for Rio for
decades, and this legacy will reach many generations."

But opposition groups seized the occasion to protest what they
said was excessive spending and the neglect of Brazil's millions of
poor.

The Landless Rural Workers Movement, or MST, a radical group
that wants agrarian reform for landless farm workers, invited
groups from around the country to protest the game's opening in
front of the mayor's office.

"We salute the athletes that take part in the Pan American
Games," the group said in a statement. But it said the money would
be better spent to finance housing, health and education for the
poor.

The fans at Maracana seemed energized by the opening ceremony.

"This is so important, for Brazil and for the world," said
Jacqueline Lima, 28, an executive secretary attending the ceremony.
"I'm so proud of Rio. It will go down in history with these
games."