ATHENS, Greece - I’m not sure I’m the last person who would ever award a duplicate medal to somebody who didn’t win an event, but there are more people ahead of me on that list than there are behind me.
Basically, I don’t believe in it. When you go around giving duplicates to everybody who had a bit of bad luck, you turn competition into an elementary school sports festival in which anyone who can fasten the Velcro on his or her shoes gets a gold medal and a certificate of participation suitable for attaching to the front of the refrigerator. If everybody wins, why bother running the race?
But there are rare times when awarding two golds is the only fair recourse. Sunday’s Olympic marathon is one of them.
Vanderlei de Lima deserves a duplicate in the marathon for the same reason a halfback streaking down the sideline who is tackled by someone running onto the field from the opposing bench is awarded a touchdown.
With three miles to go, de Lima was leading the most grueling of races and a signature event of the games. Suddenly, a man dressed in a skirt with a sign on his back advertising his dedication to incomprehensible grammar, ran into the road and took de Lima into the crowd on the other side of the street.
The assailant, Cornelius Horan, who may or may not have thought he was in Comiskey Park where such behavior was part of the ambience, turned out to be a defrocked Irish priest. And since he couldn’t wear a frock, he went with a cute, red schoolgirl kilt.
Spectators and police pried de Lima out of the clutches of the Irishman who has a history of doing this at sporting events, apparently because he believes the world is about to end and if he didn’t disrupt the Olympic marathon now, he might never have another chance. Somehow, the $1.5 billion that went towards security for the Games didn’t cover checking airline passenger lists for serial disrupters such as Horan.
De Lima didn’t lose the lead during the incident, but he would about a mile later when he was overtaken by the eventual winner, Italian Stefano Baldini, and silver medalist, Meb Keflezighi of the United States. The man from Brazil finished third.
Afterwards, de Lima, who handled the insult to his aspirations with uncommon grace and dignity, said, “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. That’s what cost me the gold medal.”
But he ran to the finish line smiling and waving and crossed it blowing kisses to the cheering crowd in the old Panathenaic Stadium where the marathon ended, just as it did 108 years ago at the first Modern Games.
“It was a very difficult incident because I was very concentrated, knowing I was going to win, and it cut my rhythm,” de Lima said, adding, “I managed to finish, and the bronze medal in such a difficult marathon is also a great achievement.”
The Brazilians filed an almost immediate appeal asking for a duplicate gold. The International Olympic Committee declined to honor that reasonable request. Instead, it gave de Lima a medal designating exceptional sportsmanship and Olympic spirit named for the founder of the Modern Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
Despite what he said, it’s impossible to say he would have won the race had Horan not intercepted him and knocked him off course. De Lima didn’t say he was hurt, but he said he was scared and confused, two emotions that are not conducive to maintaining the tunnel vision marathoners need. He also lost perhaps eight valuable seconds of his lead.
The Italian and American, who had been as much as 46 seconds behind de Lima, were closing in on him at the time. Both felt they would have reeled in the Brazilian no matter what had happened.
But we’ll never know what the result would have been had the race gone without incident. All we know is that someone attacked de Lima on the course and he lost.
Road races are fraught with mischance. A runner can slip or turn an ankle. He can miss a water station and later cramp up because of it. Winds can blow grit in his eyes. A tree limb could even fall on him. But all of those events are what golfers call rub of the green and the rest of us explain with the phrase “stuff happens.”
The vagaries of chance are part of life and part of competition. But loonies in skirts running out of the crowd to make a statement that even they don’t understand aren’t bad luck. They’re outside agents.
All any runner asks is a fair chance, and de Lima never got that. He might have won. He might have finished third anyway. We’ll never know.
In football, he would have been given the goal line. The Olympics should do no less. Baldini won a gold medal. And de Lima deserves one.
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