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Opening Ceremony Marks Official Start To Rio Olympics


We are just a couple of hours away from the opening ceremonies at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Organizers say to expect lots of samba, of course, and a lot more. NPR's Melissa Block is in Rio and is with us now. Hey, Melissa.


MCEVERS: So there have been protests leading up to the games, and I guess today was no exception?

BLOCK: That's right. There have been protests all around Rio against the government, people protesting the cost of these games. This afternoon, there was a group that marched toward Maracana Stadium, where the opening ceremony is about to be held. They were blocking traffic, and this is what they were chanting.


UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Portuguese).

BLOCK: And, Kelly, they're - it's a play on words. They're combining the word for the Olympics and the word for joke. In other words, saying the Olympics are a joke, that the vast amount of money that's being spent on these games could have been spent, should have been spent on things like health care and education. And later today, just moments ago evidently, police dispersed those protesters with tear gas.

MCEVERS: I understand organizers had to drastically cut the budget for the opening ceremony. What led to that? And will it affect what we see tonight?

BLOCK: Right. Well, Brazil, as you know, is in deep economic crisis. It's in the midst of a terrible recession. So that had an effect on these games and in particular the opening ceremony. The film director Fernando Meirelles, who's one of the creative directors for the ceremony, said look, when we started we were rich. But then we had to cut, cut, cut. And at the same time, he put that into perspective. He said when 40 percent of the homes in Brazil have no sanitation, you can't really be spending a billion reals for a show. He also said that he hopes that the opening ceremony will be what he called a drug for depression in Brazil.

MCEVERS: What about the parade of nations? What are we to expect there?

BLOCK: Well, Greece always goes first. The Olympics, of course, began in ancient Greece. Then the athletes will be marching in alphabetical order, according to the Portuguese country name.


BLOCK: So the United States will be coming in 70th. We'll be between Micronesia and Estonia. Swimmer Michael Phelps is going to be the U.S. flag bearer. He is the most decorated Olympian of all time, looking to add to his 22 medals in...


BLOCK: ...These games. Yesterday, I talked with a U.S. weightlifter named Kendrick Farris. He's from Shreveport, La. This is his third Olympics, so he knows the drill with these opening ceremonies. And he guarantees there will be selfies.

KENDRICK FARRIS: That's always cool, everybody gathering together and waiting, you know what I'm saying? We all look like twins.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

FARRIS: So it's cool. You could just say you're twinning with everybody, so...

BLOCK: So, look, Olympic athletes, Kelly, they're just like us (laughter). At the tail end of the parade for the first time - this is going to be a powerful moment - there is a team of refugees who are competing under the Olympic flag, 10 athletes from Syria, South Sudan, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. They'll parade in. And then finally, last but not least, the host country, Brazil.

MCEVERS: The Russian doping scandal, of course, has overshadowed the lead-up to these games. What's the latest on that?

BLOCK: Well, more than a hundred Russian athletes have been barred from competition. Two-hundred-seventy-one Russians will be allowed to compete. And it has been just a last minute scramble to determine who's in and who's out. The International Olympic Committee basically punted to each sports federation, said, look, you decide. You go through their doping record. So Russia's judo athletes will be allowed to compete. We should note that the International Judo Federation's honorary president is Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, himself a judoka.

On the other hand, there are other sports where the Russians have been banned - weightlifting, for example. The entire Russian team is out. I talked today to a Belgian weightlifter who all of a sudden found out that he got an Olympic slot because the Russians are gone. He just found out last Friday.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Melissa Block in Rio de Janeiro to cover the Olympics. Thanks so much.

BLOCK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.