RIO DE JANEIRO – What were the odds of coming across a man who was a torchbearer for the 2016 Rio Olympics on a morning hike to the top of the Morro do Leme, the site of Forte Duque de Caxias, at the east end of Copacabana Beach?
Having a chance meeting with one of the 12,000 runners who carried the iconic torch for a distance of about 200 meters each, whose company included World Cup-winning Brazilian soccer player Cafu and other celebrities, through 329 towns and cities during the 95-day relay across Brazil was almost like plucking a needle from a haystack.
After all, I had set out to simply speak with tourists and “Cariocas,” as natives of Rio de Janeiro are known, and get their perspectives on the 17-day sporting extravaganza taking place in the city, discover a bit of history and soak up the vibrant atmosphere from the sea of humanity strolling along the 4-kilometer Avenida Atlantica promenade.
Considering the Rio Games were in full swing, anything was possible on this brilliantly clear, sunny day. But I was not expecting to meet 69-year-old Albino Rocha, who ran in the Rio 2016 torch relay in his city of Muriae, a municipality in Minas Gerais state in southeastern Brazil.
Rocha, who has run professionally since 1987 and won the 23-kilometer Atacama International Marathon race through a desert in Chile in 2014, said he visited schools in his city, where he has been a resident for 18 years, to talk to children about the significance of the Olympic torch.
“I told them about the history of the torch, when was the first torch (relay) and why people carry the fire,” Rocha said about the modern tradition that began at the 1936 Berlin Games.
Rocha pointed out landmarks such as Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain, and Pedra da Gavea, a mountain that resembles a topsail in the Tijuca Forest, where tandem paragliding and other sports are offered to tourists, all of which can be seen from the fort and are integral symbols of Rio’s torch, he said.
He explained about the torch’s design, saying the gold color at the top represents the sun, which “shines like Brazilians” and also represents the ultimate achievement for athletes at the Olympics.
The green below it, he said, represents the mountains of Brazil; blue, the sea, a well-known feature of Rio’s landscape; and the bottom portion, the ground, notably with a design drawn from the mosaic of the Copacabana promenade, the most famous piece of ground in Rio.
The hike to the fort where we stood is a steep 800-meter trail through rainforest, featuring cuddly, hand-sized Sagui monkeys. The fort is named after Luis Alves de Lima e Silva, duke of Caxias, an army officer of the Empire of Brazil who was commander-in-chief during the Paraguayan War (1864-70).
In the 18th century, the fort was used as a military garrison to defend the city from pirate attacks, and the possibility of a Spanish invasion.
Aside from Rocha, I also spoke with Annalise and Gabriella Miller, tourists from Australia atop the lush-green hill.
“It’s been really great, the events have been really good, it’s good to see some Australians,” said Annalise, 22. “We’re staying in Ipanema, which has been an awesome location,” Gabriella, 25, said.
The sisters, who planned their trip 18 months ago, had already been to swimming, diving, tennis, cycling track, and artistic gymnastics events, in the first week at the games.
“We fly out on the 22nd (of August). Got to make it worth our while coming all the way from Australia. We always wanted to come but we kind of missed the first ballot of tickets. People were getting them and we said we might as well just try,” Annalise said.
I asked them if they were concerned at all about security threats or terrorist attacks at the Olympic Games.
“People always tell you kind of the worst stories, especially being two girls. But we’ve found that as long as we’re kind of vigilant and aware of what’s going on, we’ve felt totally safe,” Annalise said.
What about the mosquito-borne Zika virus, which is particularly dangerous for pregnant women as it can lead to birth defects and has received much media attention in the run-up to the games?
“All of the doctors at home said be cautious (use mosquito repellant), but there’s no need to cancel as long as you are not trying to conceive or pregnant and that made us feel a bit better, but it’s always in the back of your head,” Annalise said.
After walking back down the hill, I headed for the strip and the site of the beach volleyball venue. There were bikini-clad women, shirtless men exercising on pull-ups bars, vendors serving up ice-cold beers and Caipirinhas cocktails, and samba music. A street musician strummed his guitar while crooning “The Girl from Ipanema.”
A long queue of people waited to buy tickets to the beach volleyball event as a man who looked to be in his mid-50s pretended to spill glasses of fake beer on people, getting his kicks at their expense.
One Rio local I met, named Alexandra Neves, 41, told me she was happy the games had come to her city.
“I am very happy to have the Olympics taking place in South America for the first time. By hosting the Olympics we will be able to have many people learn about Rio, the transportation system will improve, and there are many good things, not only the sports happening at the Olympics,” she said.
Just a week earlier, I had traveled to the same location hours before the opening ceremony and met American Daniel Bruno, a self-proclaimed “globe-trotter” from New York City.
Bruno, 49, who now lives in Argentina and is an Olympics enthusiast, talked with me about why he traveled to Rio. He sported a shirt with “USA” splashed across the front.
“I have always been fascinated by the Olympics,” said Bruno. “I think it’s an incredible lifetime opportunity; I’ve never had a chance to do this. So here I was, not too far away from Argentina and the chance to come.”
Bruno, who is fluent in Portuguese, said he had tickets to boxing, wrestling, judo, sailing and golf, among other sports.
Nearby there had been a small group of protestors with signs that translated as “Coup d’etat, Never Again!” demonstrating against acting Brazilian President Michel Temer. Temer has taken over from suspended President Dilma Rousseff, who is facing an impeachment trial in the Senate over charges of budgetary manipulation.
Controversy has overshadowed the Olympics in a country with both political and economic turmoil.
There was protesting during the torch relay in the northern municipality of Duque de Caxias a day before the opening ceremony over salary delays for public workers, such as teachers and police, according to local media.
Local organizers said more than 3 million of the 6.1 million tickets for the Rio Games had been sold as of Aug. 13. The morning session at Olympic Stadium for track and field has sold more than 43,000 tickets, putting it at 93 percent capacity, although there have been more empty seats in the evening session.
The government says it expects half a million foreign tourists to visit during the games, but aside from the struggling economy and political woes, concerns about the Zika virus and security have kept some travelers and athletes away. But despite the naysayers, reports of security problems, and other concerns, the general atmosphere has been like a carnival.
Rocha summed up the essence of that spirit.
“I think that sports give people a good way to live and they give children an opportunity to get involved in a career in sports, to get good food and education. This is what the Olympics mean, this is what is great about the Olympic Games.”