Marathon runner wins in the end

RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian sporting heroes Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka are being forced to share the limelight with previously little-known marathon runner Vanderlei de Lima and a retired amateur Greek basketball player. The notorious attack on De Lima by a spectator during the Olympic Games marathon in Athens in August has brought him the sort of fame he is unlikely to have achieved if he had gone on to win the race. His favourite pastime of fishing has taken a back seat as De Lima has paraded with presidents and been swamped with offers from around the world to run, give speeches or appear in advertisements. It has also brought celebrity status to his rescuer, Polyvios Kossivas. The pair were given a standing ovation as they shared the stage at the Brazilian Olympic Committee’s (COB) annual awards ceremony this month. «God put him there,» said De Lima of Kossivas after being voted Brazil’s sportsman of the year. «I consider him more than a brother. He’s my angel.» Kossivas, 53, was merely a spectator at the Athens Olympics until his involvement in the most amazing incident of the Games. Rank outsider De Lima was leading the marathon with around 6 kilometers to run when former Irish priest Cornelius Horan ran across the course and bundled him into the crowd. Kossivas, who at the time was an anonymous bearded, middle-aged man, intervened, helped to free De Lima from his assailant and pushed him back on to the course, shouting: «Go, go.» De Lima, who lost about 20 seconds in the incident, still managed to go on and win a bronze medal behind Italian Stefano Baldini, doing his now famous aeroplane celebration down the back straight of the stadium where the race finished and winning a standing ovation in one of the most moving moments of the Games. Horan, who had also interrupted the British Formula One grand prix last year by running on to the track, was later given a 12-month suspended jail sentence and fined 3,000 euros. Kossivas, a one-time amateur basketball player, remained anonymous until the Brazilian newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo tracked him down in Athens a month after the Games. Almost immediately, COB president Carlos Artur Nuzman invited Kossivas and his family to Rio de Janeiro to take part in the awards ceremony. Kossivas gratefully accepted and, at the start of this month, flew over to Rio de Janeiro where he was given VIP treatment throughout his stay and his every move was documented by the media. He was taken on to the pitch at the Maracana stadium before a Brazilian championship match, visited an Ayrton Senna exhibition in Sao Paulo, the famous statue of Christ, a samba school and Copacabana beach. He then returned to his homeland, where he remains an ordinary citizen. De Lima, meanwhile, is trying to maintain some semblance of normality in his life in the face of his new-found fame. He was invited to open Brazil’s official Independence Day celebrations on September 7, where he sat alongside President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. One week later, Japanese Prime Minister Jonichiro Koizumi asked to meet De Lima during a state visit to Brazil. The shy, modest, 35-year-old athlete also appeared on television chat shows and met the Brazilian soccer team as they were training before a World Cup qualifier. The extent of his popularity finally dawned on him during an event at the University of Sao Paulo. De Lima spent his entire visit signing autographs and having his photograph taken alongside members of the public. «I don’t ever remember being applauded like this,» he told reporters. He has been deluged with offers to do advertisements – mainly for cars or mobile telephone operators – but has turned down most of them. In the midst of all this, De Lima now has to think about training for next season and building up to the world athletics championships in Helsinki. His coach, Ricardo D’Angelo, has rejected most offers and insists that his runner will take part in a maximum of three marathons next year. «We’re not going to change the planning which has worked for 12 years, allowed him to keep going for so long and win an Olympic medal at the age of 35,» he said recently. Just to make sure he does not get too distracted, De Lima will be doing his training for the next season well away from the limelight, in a small town in the middle of the Colombian Andes.