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Saturday July 14, 2007

Pan American Games open with extravaganza in Rio


RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (AP): Fireworks exploded and the wave went around Rio's cherished Maracana soccer stadium as Brazil launched its biggest show on Friday -- and a test of its ability to become a major player on the global sports stage. 

President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and a crowd of nearly 90,000 packed the stadium to officially open the Pan American Games, the biggest sporting event this city has seen since the 1950 World Cup. 

"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 -- who was booed by the crowed when his name was mentioned -- said in a statement. 

After a colorful tribute to nature and wildlife with thousands of costumed dancers, Joaquim Cruz -- the 800-meter gold medalist in the 1984 Olympics -- carried in the torch to light the gas flame at the 20-foot(6-meter)-high pyre on the field, symbolically beginning the games. 

Maracana was built for the 1950 Cup, which Brazil lost to underdog Uruguay. Brazil went on to win a record five Cups but never hosted another, and Brazilians feel that a good show at the Pan Ams will prove to the world they can stage the 2014 World Cup and perhaps even the 2016 Olympics. 

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

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

The games will bring 5,662 athletes from 42 countries to Rio until July 29. 

The stadium erupted in a throbbing samba rhythm when 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, the massive Argentina team followed by a seven-member contingent from Antigua and Barbuda. 

Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, a national hero after he was tackled by a protester while leading the Olympic marathon in 2004 in Athens and returned to finish third, carried Brazil's flag and was loudly applauded. 

The Pan Ams torch was carried by more than 3,000 Brazilians through 51 cities to Rio, and arrived on Friday at the Christ the Redeemer statue -- elected 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 3.5 billion reals (US$1.7 billion; euro1.2 billion). 

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 this week. "It will be a great legacy for Rio for decades, and this legacy will reach many generations.'' 

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