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With newly formed refugee team, Rio Olympics begin to huge fanfare

Led by flagbearer Keisuke Ushiro, Japan's Olympic delegation enters Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro during the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics on Aug. 5, 2016. (Mainichi)

RIO DE JANEIRO -- The 31st Summer Olympics opened here on the evening of Aug. 5, local time (the morning of Aug. 6 Japan time), under the slogan, "A New World."

This is the first time that the Olympics, which have a 120-year history since the first Athens Games in 1896, are being held in South America.

Performances at the opening ceremony, held at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, reflected people's hopes for peace and the Earth's rebirth. The ceremony featured Brazil's history of welcoming immigrants, and sent a message to the international community underscoring the need for global citizens to respect each other's differences.

Under the three themes of "the garden, diversity and joy," the ceremony presented spectators with symbolism unique to Brazil's multiethnic populace. Specifically, the performances introduced the history of Brazil's indigenous peoples, the Portuguese who moved to the country, slaves from Africa, and immigrants from Asia who have blended together. Some 1,500 performers representing these ethnic groups danced, sending a message to the world encouraging people from different backgrounds to treat each other with dignity.

As armed conflicts intensify around the world and the threat of terrorism continues to exist, innocent people are being killed over differences in religion and ideology. The Olympic Games -- the world's largest sporting festival -- aims to sound an alarm on such intolerance.

South Sudan and Kosovo have taken part in the Games since the 2012 London Olympics, bringing the total number of participating countries and regions to 205. Now a team of refugee athletes, which the International Olympic Committee has organized into the Refugee Olympic Team, is participating in the Rio Games. An 18-year-old member of the team, Yusra Mardini, who swam the ocean to escape civil war in Syria, said she is determined to represent hope and refugees worldwide.

Japan's delegation appeared at the stadium at 9:55 p.m. (9:55 a.m. Japan time). Dressed in red jackets, Japanese athletes waved Japanese and Brazilian flags as they marched inside the stadium. The Rio Games are important for Japan, since they will help its national team plan how they should train for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and provide Tokyo with hints on how to run the Games four years from now.

During the Games, about 200 Tokyo Olympics organizing committee members will be in Rio de Janeiro to learn how to organize the Olympics and consider how to reduce snowballing expenses.

Brazil's delegation marched into the stadium last during the ceremony, waving national flags bearing the words, "Development and order."

When the country succeeded in its bid to host the Games seven years ago, Brazil was enjoying steady economic growth thanks largely to its abundance of natural resources. High expectations were placed on the Rio Games, as they would be the first Olympics to take place in South America.

However, the country's economic growth experienced a subsequent slowdown and President Dilma Rousseff is temporarily suspended from duty after impeachment proceedings were launched over a corruption case involving a state-owned oil company.

Brazil's torch relay was interrupted and demonstrations were staged by both anti- Rousseff and pro-Rousseff groups.

Russian athletes smiled as they marched during the ceremony. Russia is participating in the Games amid criticism of a state-led doping scandal. Questions have been raised over whether the country can ensure fairness in drug testing and put an end to doping.

French President Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi attended the opening ceremony, with Paris and Rome both aspiring to host the 2024 Olympics. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also present at the ceremony.

Approximately 11,000 athletes will compete in 306 events in 28 sports during the Rio Games, which will continue through Aug. 21. (By Kosuke Yamamoto, Mainichi Shimbun)

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