Years from now, when the story of the 2004 Olympic marathon is told, it might seem more far-fetched than the original legend that has the Greek messenger Pheidippides reaching Athens with news of a great victory, then dropping dead after delivering it.
In Sunday's men's marathon, the last competition of the Summer Games, a Brazilian runner who led for more than 23 miles fell out of the lead shortly after being assaulted by a man in a black beret, red kilt and green knee socks. The assailant pushed him through a wall of befuddled fans onto a curb until he could be extricated and sent on his way again -- wobbly and dazed.
Within minutes, Italian Stefano Baldini and American Meb Keflezighi, who had been about 10 seconds behind, surged into the lead, setting the stage for Baldini to race to his first Olympic gold and Keflezighi to claim a stunning silver, the first Olympic medal won by an American man in the event in 28 years.
And then, there he came. As Keflezighi made the sign of the cross after running through the finish in 2 hours 11 minutes 29 seconds, 34 seconds behind Baldini, the battered Brazilian, Vanderlei de Lima, entered the 108-year-old marble Panathinaiko Stadium and sprinted joyously, exuberantly, to a bronze medal in 2:12:11.
"The Olympic spirit prevailed here," de Lima said. "My determination prevailed."
On the same oval a Greek was drowned in cheers to conclude the first modern Olympics in 1896 with Greece's only gold medal, de Lima reveled in the crowd's embrace. As he approached the finish line, de Lima, 35, spread his arms and dipped and dived like a plane. He blew a kiss, then drew a giant heart with his hands.
Like de Lima, Keflezighi, 29, celebrated his medal without regard to its color. A week after American Deena Kastor won a surprising bronze in the women's marathon, Keflezighi surpassed the feat, giving the United States its first pair of Olympic marathon medals ever and, perhaps, signaling a long-awaited resurgence in the event. Since running legend Frank Shorter won the silver in the 1976 Summer Games and the gold in 1972, U.S. men have endured a mystifying drought.
"We were hoping for a breakthrough," said U.S. team coach Bob Larsen, who has coached Keflezighi since his high school years in San Diego. "We needed concrete evidence we were doing some good things. What more [could you ask] than Deena and Meb and what they contributed here."
A native of Eritrea who moved to the United States when he was 10, Keflezighi grew up in a house in Asmara with 10 brothers and sisters. He tells stories of his brothers hiding in bushes when soldiers scoured the neighborhood seeking to fill their ranks for the war with Ethiopia. He said he knew nothing about the Olympics, because the village provided no newspaper, television or electricity.
Keflezighi is one of a handful of U.S. medalists who were born in other countries, including gymnast Annia Hatch (two silver medals) of Cuba, and swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg (gold) and synchronized swimmer Anna Kozlova (two bronzes) originally from Russia.
Keflezighi escaped the war first by moving to Milan, then San Diego. He gained U.S. citizenship in July 1998, but he still feels emotion for his native nation. He pointed to a pin on his U.S. team jacket. It is the American and Eritrean flags melded together.
Keflezighi's rise has been gradual. Even while competing for UCLA, his results were average. At last year's world championships in the 10,000 meters, he finished 16th. He was 12th in the event at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney.
His rivals "probably didn't have him high on the list of potential medalists," Larsen said.
"I didn't get the credit I deserved," Keflezighi said. "God gave me talent to run. I do it. It's simple: You start at a line. You finish at a line. There shouldn't be anything in the middle."
Indeed, there should not. Sunday, there was: Police arrested an Irish citizen named Cornelius Horan, who has a history of such disruptions. Last year, Horan had run onto the track during the British Grand Prix.
The Brazilian track federation filed a protest of the marathon result to the world track and field governing body (IAAF), but it was denied.
To de Lima, it mattered little.
"Never mind the result of the appeal," he said. "I am very, very happy to have won this medal."
The race began in the dry heat of the day in the small town of Marathon, the site of the famous battle in 490 B.C. that eventually demanded Pheidippides' services. De Lima ran in the lead pack of runners for about six miles, but he separated himself by the halfway point, mounting a 14-second lead.
By then, Keflezighi was in 24th place, clumped at the back of a group of runners that eventually fell behind by more than 40 seconds. But in the second half of the race, Keflezighi began a comeback reminiscent of the climb made by Kastor last week. The pair had trained for three weeks in Crete. They wore sweat shirts and sweat pants to prepare for the blazing heat.
"I felt good after one hour, 10 minutes," Keflezighi said. "So I thought, 'Why not me? Why not me?' "
By the 22-mile mark, Keflezighi had moved to fourth, behind de Lima, Baldini and Kenyan Paul Tergat, who faded and finished 10th.
It was about then that the costumed assailant rushed at de Lima, whose eyes opened wide in shock and horror. The man plowed into de Lima and shoved him about 10 yards into a thick crowd of fans, where he fell onto the curb. By the time fans and police could subdue the attacker, de Lima had lost at least six seconds. But he emerged, running shakily and looking white with fear. He waved his arms as if to say, "What is going on?"
"I was obviously surprised," he said. "I wasn't expecting that at all. I really couldn't defend myself. . . . Someone simply attacked me with his whole body. I didn't react. He simply hurled himself at me in the middle of the street."
Keflezighi and Baldini had no idea what had happened, other than noticing police and security swarming on the road. They took advantage, passing de Lima easily, Baldini running about 10 seconds ahead of Keflezighi.
Even so, de Lima seemed the happiest man at the finish. At the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, he finished 47th after battling the flu during the race. He was 27th at the 1997 world championships in Athens. No matter how he got here, this was his greatest finish in any race.
"The moment I'm experiencing now is one I've worked very hard for, trained for a long time," de Lima said. "What happened was something that simply happened. I was well prepared. I was expecting to win a medal, and I achieved that goal. No matter what happened, it was a great joy for me to be on the medal stand with these two gentlemen."