By Nelson Belen, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The Olympic torch relay continued this past Friday (June 3rd) and Saturday (June 4th) as the torch passed through the Northeast region of Brazil. Capping off the first thirty days of the torch’s 95-day journey were several of Brazil’s most legendary and decorated athletes who had the chance to carry the flame in their hometowns.
On Friday, June 3rd, the torch relay passed through the northeast town of João Pessoa highlighted by a former member of the Brazilian Olympic football (soccer) team as well as the national teams in the 1982 and 1986 World Cups, Leovegildo Lins da Gama Júnior, also known as Júnior.
The football star, who also had a distinguished career playing for Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, said, “It’s an indescribable emotion. I would have made any sacrifice to carry the torch in my hometown.”
In the early part of Saturday afternoon, volleyball player, Virna Dias, carried the torch through the throngs of cheering supporters in her hometown of Natal. Dias won bronze in both the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. Now retired, she brought her three kids along for her stage of the relay. “Natal is the most beautiful city in the world,” she said. “I’ve been around the world but there is nowhere like this.”
One hometown hero passed the torch to another, as Dias handed off the torch to Brazil’s legendary basketball icon Oscar Schmidt. Considered one of the best basketball players to never play in the NBA, the 58-year-old former forward played in five Olympics and is the all-time leading scorer in Olympic history.
Yet, Schmidt’s most famous moment arguably came in another international sports event, when he led Brazil to a shocking upset victory over the U.S. for the gold medal at the 1987 Pan American Games. As emotional as that event surely was for Schmidt, the basketball star was also overcome by emotion carrying the flame through the streets of his birthplace, “It’s something extraordinary, to have the Olympic flame in your own hands,” Schmidt said wiping away tears.
From Natal, the torch headed out to sea on Sunday (June 5th) where the relay will continue off the Northeast coast at the island of Fernando de Noronha. The relay will culminate in Rio de Janeiro on August 5th for the opening ceremony of the 2016 Olympics.