By Brad Haynes and Pedro Fonseca
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Carried by samba stars, a supermodel and Prince Albert of Monaco, the Olympic torch made its final journey on Friday from Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue to the Games’ opening ceremony amid anti-government protests.
After seven years of preparations for Friday’s opening at the Maracana stadium, organizers hope the start of the Games will turn the page on months of bad publicity for Rio, over everything from crime and polluted water to faulty plumbing at the athletes’ village and worries about the Zika virus.
Under cloudless blue skies, former Brazilian women’s volleyball player, Isabel Salgado, lifted the flame beneath the giant statue of Christ that overlooks downturn Rio and the waters of Guanabara Bay.
Amid cheering crowds of local and tourists, the torch made its way along Rio’s seafront avenues and traveled to the top of the famed Sugar Loaf mountain on the top of the cable car.
“May this be the moment for us to overcome difficult times and to work as a team, to make our country and our world fairer and safer,” Archbishop Orani Joao Tempesta said beneath the arms of the giant statue at the start of the route, flanked by Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes.
Thousands of flag-waving protesters blocked traffic on the curving boulevard beside Copacabana beach, in front of the city’s storied Palace hotel, calling for the removal of conservative interim President Michel Temer.
After taking office when leftist President Dilma Rousseff was put on trial in the Senate in the midst of a sweeping graft scandal, Temer has steered Latin America’s largest economy – and one of the world’s most unequal countries – sharply to the right.
Small groups of protesters waving banners reading ‘Exclusion Games’ gathered near the Maracana stadium where Friday’s opening ceremony will be held, but heavily armed riot police barred the streets and prevented them from approaching the venue.
Having won the Olympics in 2009 during an economic boom, Brazil since slipped into its worst recession in decades and a political crisis that has deeply divided the nation of 200 million people.
The torch’s three-month, 20,000-km journey across Brazil ran into difficulties this week as protests flared in towns around Rio against the Games’ $12 billion price tag, at a time of high unemployment, rising crime and cutbacks to health and education spending.
“We want to show the world that we won’t stand for this totally illegitimate president,” said sociologist Luiz Mazzei, who arrived with his wife wearing “Temer Out” shirts.
“It’s a shame. We’re so excited for the Olympics. We bought tickets for almost every day. But now it’s an awkward mix: we’re happy about the Olympics but fed up with Brazil’s situation.”
Rio will seek to put that behind it on Friday when fireworks light up the night sky above the Maracana. Some 50,000 spectators are expected, with some 3 billion people tuning in around the world as Brazil lifts the curtain on its second major sporting event in two years, after the 2014 soccer World Cup.
Security challenges in the sprawling beachside city are at the forefront of many people’s minds, not only because of Rio’s reputation for violent crime but also due to a spate of deadly attacks in Europe and the United States.
Brazil detained 12 people under tough new anti-terrorism laws on suspicion of links to Islamic State last month, but it has insisted the threat to the Games is ‘minimal’.
With many of the Games’ 11,000 athletes and dozens of heads of state in attendance, the opening ceremony will be the first major test of Rio’s preparedness. In the latest of a series of crimes in the run up to the Games, police arrested a Moroccan Olympic boxer on Friday on sexual assault charges.
With more anti-government protests scheduled for Friday afternoon, police cleared the area around the stadium.
Brazil has deployed some 85,000 police and troops, roughly twice the number at London’s 2012 Olympics, to protect locals and the half million tourists expected to visit the city.
Rio has consistently pulled off massive events with few security hiccups, including Carnival, the 2014 World Cup final and one of the world’s biggest New Year’s Eve bashes.
In what organizers have called a low-tech ceremony constrained by the dire economy, Brazil will showcase its natural treasures and the cultural riches created by one of the world’s most diverse nations.
Samba, Carnival and the famously fun Brazilian spirit are expected to play heavily into the three-hour ceremony, as will a call to save the planet from climate change.
One of the most anticipated moments will be seeing which famous Brazilian will light the Olympic cauldron. In a surprise announcement, representatives for soccer legend Pele said he would not be taking part.
“I ask God to bless all who participate in this event and that it is a great success and end in peace!” Pele tweeted.
(Additional reporting by Jeb Blount, Caroline Stauffer and Raquel Stenzel; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by Mary Milliken and Tom Brown)