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

Updated: July 13, 2007, 9:17 PM ET
Associated Press

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."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press