Vanderlei de Lima is not a big man. At 5 feet 5, he is two feet shorter than Yao Ming, the tallest Olympian. At 119 pounds, he is 231 pounds lighter than Iranian weightlifter Hossein Rezazadeh, the world's strongest man.
But the little Brazilian marathoner who careered into Panathinaiko Stadium on the last night of the Athens Games represents nothing more than the largest Olympic ideal left: That man can still run the great race of the ancients and finish with resilience and heart. That no matter how many frighteningly dangerous -- and flat-out bizarre -- modern hurdles come your way, human majesty does not crumble as easily as Grecian columns and some Olympic values.
De Lima won the bronze medal in the marathon on Sunday night, beginning in the town by the same name, following a steep, treacherous course where, legend says, Pheidippides carried the news in 490 B.C. that the Greeks had defeated the Persians -- after which he promptly dropped dead.
The Brazilian was leading the race when a deranged protester from Ireland, imprisoned for running on a Grand Prix racing track in England a little more than a year ago, accosted de Lima and forced him off the course, onto the adjacent sidewalk and into a crowd with about three miles to go. Stunned beyond belief, his rhythm shaken for maybe six seconds, de Lima gathered himself and somehow continued.
"It was a great, big surprise," de Lima said through a Portuguese interpreter. "Someone simply attacked me with his whole body. I didn't react. He simply hurled himself at me in the middle of the street.
"But I think the Olympic spirit prevailed again. My determination prevailed again. I was able to medal for myself and my country."
Two men caught him, gold medalist Stefano Baldini and American Meb Keflezighi, the silver medalist. De Lima, who thought he could have won gold, did not care. He would finish.
Wasn't that the sole mission 2,500 years ago, before the death of amateurism, before the Games became big and fat but clearly not Greek?
Spiridon Louis did not have anybody blocking his path in 1896, the year the modern Games were founded and a shepherd from outside Athens won the marathon. But then, Queen Mary II was not a floating, five-star hotel carrying multimillionaire basketball players; she was merely a royal born in 1662. Michael Phelps's medals would have been heralded by his country in 1896 more than his bathing-suit company. News conferences were always held by nations, not the United States of Adidas.
In his introduction to the first modern Games in 1896, Pierre de Coubertin drew on the old-fangled English schoolboy concept of physical education as a means to building character.
"In this reform physical exercise holds, in a certain manner, the fundamental basis as a means of ethical conduct," de Coubertin wrote. "This is the reestablishment, according to the needs of the present times, of one of the most noteworthy features of Greek civilisation; the contribution of the muscles to the work of moral education."
Muscles begetting morality. Foreign, no? Muscles getting us paid, perhaps. Muscles morphing into fame and sponsorship. But the notion of sport and competition as a fundamental way to build ethics and character has all but been discarded the past 25 years.
Amateurism as an ethic became so confining it gave way to sport as a living, and it spurred the advent of the truly modern Games. If Jim Thorpe's medals were taken away, Ian Thorpe's hardware is worth IOC-approved cash.
The more the Games evolve, on the contradictions go. Set foot in the sunken passageway of Ancient Olympia, to the return of competition after 1,600 years. Place your foot in the same grooved marble starting blocks as Leonidas of Rhodes. Touch the past -- before the grounds are desecrated by the women's shot put champion, popped for a drug test a few days later.
Another gold medal null and void, the Doping Arms Race escalates.
Track and field drew crowds of 70,000 to Olympic Stadium, the Greeks paying tribute to the classical athletic disciplines like few nations. But the cloud of steroids was omnipresent, and when the Games were done 22 athletes had either tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs or failed to show up for a test.
So many different Olympics now, so many different Olympians.
Time clocks officiate most competitions, judges run and ruin others, enough to make you want to divide the Games in two -- an objective Olympics and a subjective Olympics.
How can an NBA star such as Richard Jefferson, cooped up on a luxurious ocean liner -- telling his Athenian cab driver, Andreas Galos, he will pay his 150-Euro fine for driving in the illegal Olympic lanes to get him back to the boat by 5 a.m. on game night -- possibly be on the same Olympic team as Mariel Zagunis, a 19-year-old, bubbly kid from Beaverton, Ore., who claimed America's first fencing gold medal since 1904?
Zagunis will go on to Notre Dame, keep her NCAA eligibility and hope for a good life and a good job. Jefferson goes back home to amenities befitting a king, a life in which the Olympics is more of a footnote than a seminal life moment. Maybe we just have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that the Olympics are locked in a constant battle between the spirit of the ancients and the reality of the present.
The question is, then: Do they all find the same meaning? No. It's impossible, given their backgrounds and current stations in life. But neither do the spectators find the same meaning. We don't like ambiguity when it comes to the Olympics; we want something distilled and crystallized to embody the purity of sport. The IOC lives by this doctrine and yet always finds tripwires -- be it Kostas Kenteris, the Greek sprinter who was supposed to light the cauldron before he curiously decided to skip a drug test, or the unseemliness of an incompetent judge siphoning the spirit out of an entire sport of pixies and strong, little men.
And so you are left waiting for a moment, the night the little Brazilian with the big heart enters the old marble stadium the way Spiridon Louis did 108 years ago. You watch him come in, imitating a kite blowing in the wind, a human airplane, weaving, about to land on the last night in the last event of the Olympic Games. Hours after a man accosted him in the middle of competition, in the middle of a modern world's madness, he proudly wore an olive wreath on his crown -- just like the gods.
"It is a festive moment," de Lima said, explaining why he was so joyous when he entered the stadium. "It is a unique moment. Most athletes never have this moment, very few have the privilege to live such moments."
Vanderlei de Lima tells you with his resolve and smile that it is all right. He ran the great race of the past and overcame the most bizarre of modern hurdles -- not unlike the nation that held these Games. What a poignant and perfect finish for the old world, no?
Poor Pheidippides. At least his spiritual descendant lived to tell about it.