RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil's largest city still must overcome doubts about crime and traffic, among other things, if it hopes to make good on its Quixotic bid to play host to the 2016 Olympic Games. But Rio sure has the opening ceremony down pat.
On Friday the city inaugurated the 15th Pan American Games with a lavish and creative 3 1/2 -hour show that featured a symphony orchestra, three 100-foot-long coral snakes, Miss Brazil, an alligator the size of a 747, fireworks, a 1,500-piece percussion band and thousands of dancers dressed as everything from ocean waves to water lilies.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 15, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Pan American Games: An article in Saturday's Sports section said Rio de Janeiro is Brazil's largest city. Sao Paulo is the country's largest city.
"It was incredible," said water polo player Heather Petri of Long Beach.
"I actually think that was the best opening ceremony I've ever seen."
And, International Olympic Committee members should note, Petri has been to two Olympics. But then the IOC voters have no need to take Petri's word for it. IOC President Jacques Rogge was also on hand for Friday's glossy show, which was part Disney, part Cirque du Soleil.
Even before awarding of the first medal, these Games, featuring more than 5,600 athletes from 42 countries, are the largest and most expensive Pan Ams in history.
And Friday's $25-million kickoff probably was the most expensive opening ceremony in Pan Am history as well.
There's little doubt it was most spectacular.
Produced by Scott Givens, an IOC consultant and chief of the group that put on the creative opening and closing ceremonies at the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002, Givens has worked on six Olympic ceremonies and is currently helping craft the shows for Beijing next summer.
"Overwhelming," said field hockey player Binh Hoang of Westlake Village. "Obviously it's a once-in-a-lifetime event and it was phenomenal. When you walk in the stadium you got chills up your back. You just start shaking."
When Hoang and the rest of the nearly 600 athletes in the U.S. delegation walked into Maracana Stadium behind flag-bearer Danielle Scott-Arruda, a four-time Pan Am participant in volleyball, they also got a raucous mix of cheers and boos from a crowd some estimated at more than 90,000.
Aside from the host Brazilians, who drew a long and emotional standing ovation, the loudest applause went to the Cuban delegation, which entered the stadium behind four-time Olympic judo medalist Driulis Gonzalez with its female athletes dressed in lime-green pantsuits and the men in khaki cotton shirts and pants.
Mexico, with its delegation outfitted in smart off-white guayaberas and straw hats, also drew warm applause. The U.S. team wore red polo shirts and tan shorts.
After two days of rain, cool and mostly clear skies greeted the ceremony. Once the world's largest soccer stadium, Maracana was the site of Pele's 1,000th goal -- though on Friday there was no sight of Pele. Although it was largely anticipated Brazil's greatest athlete would be called on to light the eternal flame, the honor went instead to former University of Oregon middle-distance runner Joaquim Cruz, a two-time Olympic medalist for Brazil.
"I have never seen that many people in one place before," Chantel Jones, goalie for the U.S. women's soccer team, said of the ceremony. "It took my breath away."
Now Brazil is hoping the IOC feels the same way.