Bearing no burden

Vanderlei de Lima carries no ill will to the man who disrupted his greatest moment

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The Opening Ceremony of the first Olympics in South America is set for Aug. 5, 2016, at the famed Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro.

The highlight of the night, and an image that will endure through the following 16 days of competition and for years, will be the lighting of the Olympic cauldron.

The honor of being the final torch bearer to pass the Olympic flame into the cauldron has been awarded over the last 80 years to Olympic gold medalists, a Norwegian prince and even a Japanese runner who was born in Hiroshima the day the atomic bomb fell.

The identity of the final torch bearer(s) is always a closely guarded secret. Speculation runs rampant in the host city and nation. Who will light the cauldron? Who should light the cauldron?

For Rio 2016, the most popular answer to the first question is clear given the host country and the stadium, a legendary soccer venue.

“The first name that comes to mind is Pelé,” said Joaquim Cruz, Brazil’s 1984 Olympic 800m champion who lit the 2007 Pan American Games cauldron at the Maracanã. “But Pelé was not an Olympian, never played in a Pan American Games or an Olympic Games.”

So maybe the soccer icon with no Olympic experience isn’t the person who should light the cauldron.

There are no guidelines for choosing a final torch bearer, a decision at the hands of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee. But there is this from the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland: “It is often a personality from the sports world or a young person symbolizing hope for the future.”

The last three Olympic cauldron lightings have involved multiple people, one with young athletes in 2012, and one with a professional sports icon on the level of Pelé in 2010 (Wayne Gretzky).

If Rio Olympic organizers want to stray from recent history and, gasp, choose someone other than Pelé, there is a very deserving candidate.

* * *

Brazil’s Vanderlei de Lima was the surprise late leader of the Olympics’ trademark event, the marathon, at the Athens 2004 Games, the return of the Olympics to their homeland in Greece.

The marathon is derived from the 490 BC story of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens bearing the news of a Greek victory over Persians in the Battle of Marathon.

The 2004 Olympic marathon began in Marathon and would traverse devastating hills before ending in Panathinaiko Stadium in Athens, which was used for the first modern Games in 1896.

De Lima, 35 and a two-time Pan American Games marathon winner, was not considered a medal favorite going into the Olympics.

His personal-best time for 26.2 miles, set six years earlier, was nearly four minutes slower than that of the pre-race favorite, Kenyan Paul Tergat, who broke the world record at the 2003 Berlin Marathon.

But there was the undersized de Lima, one of seven children in a family of plantation workers, out in front as the sun set over the Acropolis.

De Lima, wearing bib No. 1234, had taken the lead ahead of 100 runners about halfway through the race and still held a 25-second advantage with about four miles to go.

At the 1-hour, 52-minute, 42-second mark, de Lima’s eyes veered to his left while on an Athens road. He raised his arms and braced for an impact.

A split second later, a man in a green beret and brown kilt flashed into the picture. He ran into the Brazilian.

Neil Horan, a defrocked Irish priest who similarly trespassed onto the British Grand Prix Formula One course the year before, grabbed de Lima by his blue Brazilian singlet. He took the runner off the road and into a row of spectators in a few seconds.

“My central message is I believe a visitor from outer space will soon come to this world, and he will take complete charge of the world and reign as king from Jerusalem for a thousand years,” Horan said in a 2008 NBC Olympics profile.

 

When he grabbed de Lima, Horan wore a sign on his back that reportedly read, “The Grand Prix Priest Israel Fulfillment of Prophecy Says the Bible.”

De Lima could not fight off Horan’s momentum.

“When I saw the man who was jumping on me I was scared, because I didn’t know what could happen to me, whether he was armed with a knife, a revolver or something and whether he was going to kill me,” de Lima said after the marathon, according to The Associated Press.

Polyvios Kossivas, a 53-year-old Athens salesman, hopped over a police tape-like barrier and helped quickly pull Horan off de Lima.

De Lima emerged seven seconds after the collision to continue running, his lead cut into but not gone. He was obviously affected. De Lima once waved his arms in apparent exasperation after returning to the road.

“I think that the psychological shock was the greatest impact that I suffered,” de Lima said in Portuguese in the NBC Olympics profile. “To be attacked like that, it was painful. I was totally defenseless and exhausted.

“From that moment, it was a matter of overcoming the odds. I was even shaking my head like that guy messed everything up for me. But quitting the race didn’t once cross my mind.”

Behind him, Italian Stefano Baldini and American Meb Keflezighi chased. Keflezighi, who would go on to win the 2009 New York City Marathon and the 2014 Boston Marathon, said he was too far behind to notice the attack on de Lima.

“I did not know until the press conference what had happened,” Keflezighi said earlier this year.

Baldini surged past de Lima just after the two-hour mark. Keflezighi followed one minute later.

Baldini went on to claim the gold, with Keflezighi taking silver. De Lima entered Panathinaiko Stadium destined for the bronze medal.

He blew kisses to the crowd on his closing lap of the not-quite-400-meter track. He broke into an airplane motion on the final straightaway and appeared to draw a heart with his hands near the finish line.

“It was a moment of overcoming obstacles and of dreams coming true,” de Lima said in the 2008 NBC Olympics profile.

That remains a memorable image to Brazilians.

“I still have in my mind the way he was coming before the finish line,” Cruz said. “If you hadn’t seen the race, you would say that kid is really happy he got a bronze medal.”

The Brazilian Olympic Committee appealed for a duplicate gold medal for de Lima. It was denied.

Instead, de Lima earned two medals that day in Athens. He was also awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal by the International Olympic Committee for “exceptional demonstration of fair play and Olympic values,” an honor given on average less than once per Olympics since its creation in 1964.

“The marathon has been run for 100 years. There have been so many urban marathons. That, which we just saw, has been the worst nightmare of any race director ever. Never seen it really happen in a major marathon until now,” NBC Olympics analyst Marty Liquori said on the broadcast on the day of the Closing Ceremony, nine years before the Boston Marathon twin bombings.

The lingering question is if de Lima could have held on to win if not for Horan. He lost 20 seconds of his lead in the two miles before the attack, according to broadcast coverage of the race.

De Lima, who has said he doesn’t know how the race would have unfolded, finished 1:16 behind Baldini and 42 seconds behind Keflezighi.

“People always ask me would you have caught him [if not for Horan],” Keflezighi said. “I say yes, because we [Baldini and I] were working together trying to catch him versus him going so early [to the lead] and being by himself.”

* * *

De Lima returned to a champion’s welcome in Brazil. People gathered at the airport. His home track and field club increased his bronze medal gift to what was normally accorded to gold medalists. Ceremonies were held in his honor, even flying in the Greek who helped pull Horan off him.

He declined many sponsorship opportunities and never competed in the Olympics again.

De Lima was Brazil’s Opening Ceremony flag bearer at the 2007 Pan American Games and retired after the 2009 Paris Marathon.

He owned a type of sporting goods store in the southern Brazilian city of Maringa but gave that up and now focuses on social projects with an institute bearing his name.

“My mission is to give to poor children the opportunity that I hadn’t in the past,” de Lima said, according to responses provided by his manager to emailed questions.

De Lima said that in his mind he forgave Horan right after he finished the marathon and has not had contact with the Irishman since 2004.

“I was never angry at that man,” de Lima said in the 2008 NBC Olympics profile. “That moment of ecstasy and happiness was bigger than the frustration of not having won the gold, so that bronze medal, that was like gold for me.”

Horan was fined but not imprisoned. He said in an email this spring that he’s tried to relay apologies to de Lima through Brazilian media and in letters to Brazil Olympic officials. He even traveled to Brazil this past winter for a 17-day stay with hopes of saying sorry to de Lima in person.

“I still can remember the side glance [de Lima] gave as I approached, the really look of fright, terror on his face,” Horan said in the 2008 NBC Olympics profile. “I went slightly too far I must say, and I’ve apologized many times for possibly depriving him of the gold medal.”

De Lima doesn’t seem interested.

“All I had to talk about I have already did,” he said in an email. “I don’t like to give much attention to prevent incidents like this from happening again and to harm other athletes. For me my achievement in Athens is much higher than that episode.”

Horan is a street performer in London and has a Twitter following of 101, making frequent use of capital letters in multi-tweet rants.

“I DO want  Publicity-as much of it as I can possibly get,” he said in an email.

In 2014, de Lima returned to Athens on the 10-year anniversary to film a piece for Brazilian TV about the 2004 Olympic marathon. He said he went back over the whole route.

“I relived the emotions, and I recalled everything that happened in 2004,” he said. “It was a very special time for me, I feel very well in Athens.”

De Lima said he presumed he will have a role with the Rio 2016 torch relay, which starts next spring, or other preparations. But he has nothing official yet and may end up doing TV commentary at the Rio Olympics.

And if he could pick the Opening Ceremony cauldron lighter?

“I would choose Joaquim Cruz, because he is my idol and has always been a great reference to my career,” de Lima said of the 1984 Olympic 800m champion who is now a U.S. Paralympic track and field coach and guide runner at the Parapan American Games in Toronto later this month.

Cruz remembers a commentator’s reaction when he was revealed as the cauldron lighter at the Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007. Disappointment. Brazilians wanted Pelé.

“Soccer is the No. 1 sport in the country,” Cruz said. “Nothing else comes second.”

Asked if he could choose the cauldron lighter for the Rio Olympics, Cruz tapped his friend de Lima. Brazilians describe de Lima as shy, simple and modest.

“It’s a face that people still remember,” Cruz said. “He’s very involved in the community and with his non-profit organization. He’s a role model, both inside the track and outside the track.”