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Ascent to see statue on Rio mountaintop turns into a peak experience

RIO DE JANEIRO – The Olympic motto is “Citius, Altuis, Fortius,” which is Latin for “Faster, Higher, Stronger.” The motto was proposed by French aristocrat and visionary Baron Pierre de Coubertin in 1894, when he created the International Olympic Committee and revived the Games.

Even in my younger days, I was never mistaken for strong and fast. So every four years, I have to settle for going higher. There’s something about the Olympics that makes me want to reach a little closer to the gods.

During my years as an Olympic journalist, I’ve taken the time to climb the Sydney Harbour Bridge, walk along the Great Wall of China and ascend the 550 steps to the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

So I needed one more for a career grand slam. What better choice than to visit the Christ the Redeemer statue high above Rio on Corcovado Mountain? While it’s hard to compare epic climbs – like ranking Opening Ceremonies – something told me this could be the capper, the most stunning of all.

A little after 9 a.m. Thursday, my wife, Melinda, and I headed down into the Cinelandia subway station near our downtown hotel, across the road from Mahatma Gandhi Square. From there, it was three stops to Largo Machado, where we boarded a city bus for Cosme Vehlo.

The bus made a slow crawl through the heart of the city, through busy old neighborhoods with palm trees and gated apartment buildings and storefront groceries, before dropping us off in front of a church with a large banner of Pope Francis on the facade.

Francis is from Argentina, which reminded me that South America had its first pope when the continent hosted its first Olympics.

Across the street was the entrance to the train station that would carry us up Corcovado Mountain to “Cristo Redentor.” We passed the obligatory souvenir stands, bought tickets and got in line for the trip.

Just before you got into line, they had a table where they were selling shots of cachaca, the alcohol that is made from sugarcane juice and is the main ingredient in Caipirinha cocktails. I should confess that I’ve come to enjoy a nice Caipirinha at the end of a trying day at the Games.

It was too early for alcohol, or so I was told. I was reminded that before climbing the Sydney Bridge in 2000, I was given a Breathalyzer test and blew a surprising 0.0.

Corcovado means “hunchback” in Portuguese, for its rugged and perilous geography. You can hike all the way up, but it’s not for the old or faint of heart.

Anyway, we were soon aboard the old funicular train, which was built in 1885 – shortly before the start of the modern Olympics – and feels its age. The train rises slowly up the mountain and through thick vegetation, on a steep three-mile climb that takes 17 minutes.

Riding the funicular reminded me of being on one of those old wooden roller coasters, where the train’s grinding gears and the slow clacking of the cars on the track anticipate your arrival at the top of the summit. It was a little unnerving, too, when the car stopped twice along the way.

Corcovado rises 710 meters, or 2,329 feet above the Tijuca Forest, a national park in the center of Rio de Janeiro. It’s the largest urban rain forest in the world and lies wholly within the city limits.

It was well worth the trip. As the train ascended the mountain, there were periodic gaps in the forest that offered stunning views of the city below. But it was nothing compared with the view awaiting you at the very top.

Once you disembark the train, you still have to get to the peak and the statue. You can take an elevator or climb the 220 zigzagging steps to the summit. I walked, figuring it was my only chance for a legitimate climb to complete the Grand Slam. It wasn’t St. Paul’s or the Wall, but it counts.

The view from the top was the most amazing I’ve ever seen, a breathtaking, 360-degree panorama of Rio. It was all laid out in front of your eyes: the skyline, the oceans and lagoons and the bay, the neighborhoods and parks and highways and stadiums.

Below us was Lagoa, where you could see the rowing venue and the boats gliding along the water, so tiny you could barely see them.

For all I knew, Emily Regan and the women’s eight might have been preparing for Saturday’s final. On the other side, you could see the Olympic Stadium and volleyball arena in the distance. We could see the neighborhood where our hotel is located.

High above was the Christ the Redeemer statue, rising 100 feet in the air on top of a 20-foot pedestal. It was commissioned in 1921, the centennial of Brazil’s independence, and designed by a French sculptor, same as the Statue of Liberty (it’s two-thirds the height of Liberty).

It was finished 10 years later, in 1931. It’s a symbol of Christianity around the globe and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The only time I remember being so awestruck was when I clapped my eyes on Niagara Falls for the first time.

The weather was clear and sunny, though quite windy. As I was told, it was much more favorable for viewing than the previous days, when it was dreary and hazy and people said you couldn’t even see the face of the Redeemer from the base of the statue.

The roof was jammed with visitors Thursday morning. Some of them were lying on their backs so they could get a better angle with their cameras. Others stood with their arms spread wide, mimicking the statue’s embrace.

Three soldiers with automatic rifles stood vigil against the wall, a sign of the trouble that exists in the world today, and the ever-present fear that some violent act might intrude on an otherwise lovely experience.

But people barely seemed to notice, they were so mesmerized by the view and elevated by the day. There were visitors from all over, from Morocco, Bulgaria, Japan, Canada, Germany, China, the United States and Brazil. Most of them were young, some of them Olympic athletes in their free time.

They say a smile is the same in any language. So is a look of awe, astonishment and pure joy. The Olympics are far from perfect, but they can still give us moments when people come together, when they rise up and celebrate something bigger than themselves.

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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