Oh, but wait! Who’s that big guy carrying the Olympic flag? That’s Sestão! Sestão? Who the hell is Sestão? Why, it’s Oscar! Oscar Schmidt. No doubt he’s filled out some, but the form was still the same, and so was that unmistakable grin. Schmidt’s imposing six-foot-nine-inch frame towered over everyone else. Yes, Oscar Schmidt, Brazil’s all-time leading scorer in Olympic and professional basketball, if not in ALL of basketball, on hand for the opening ceremony.
After undergoing surgery for brain cancer in both 2011 and 2013, Oscar looked healthy and fit as he stood proud and tall in his all-white suit. Waving to the thousands of cheering fans in attendance, he held the Olympic banner aloft, alongside seven other Brazilian athletes and former Olympic medal winners, to include women’s soccer champion Marta.
Many moments later, the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony resumed with the presence of retired tennis player Gustavo “Guga” Kuerten. At about the middle of the runway, Guga paused and kissed the next torchbearer’s hand. Upon receiving the flame, the torchbearer raised it high overhead. Guga held on to the torchbearer’s hips and bowed, gallantly, to former basketball sensation Hortência Marcari. Strolling sideways down the runway, the still elegant Hortência reached the long-awaited individual who would take hold of the flame and light the Olympic cauldron.
For the next two weeks, the cauldron would burn bright, a symbol of the unquenchable light that illuminates the inner flame of every Olympian; the light that coaxes the ancient spirits of Mount Olympus down from the clouds and back down to Mother Earth. Entrusted with this sacred duty, the bearer of the Olympic flame must be an athlete of unrivaled ability; a sportsperson of the highest order as well as unquestioned integrity and esteem.
Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima came from the small town of Cruzeiro do Oeste (Western Cross) in the southern State of Paraná. He was raised in Tapira, an even smaller town in the same state. Like many young Brazilians before and after him, Vanderlei had childhood dreams of becoming a stellar soccer player. Instead, he turned to running.
The aim of most runners is to go the distance, to extend themeselves beyond the norm. This became Vanderlei’s mantra as well, his reason for doing what he did. Through the inspiration of his coach, Ricardo D’Angelo, Vanderlei went from half-marathons to running “the whole nine yards” (actually, 42.2 kilometers, or 26.2 miles for a full marathon).
“We have a great relationship,” Vanderlei said of Coach Ricardo, “and when I started running, he was starting his coaching career. We both learned a lot together.”
He qualified for the Atlanta Games in 1996, and went on to finish the Tokyo Marathon in 1998, taking second place. In that same year, he placed fifth in the New York Marathon with a near-personal best of two hours, ten minutes, and forty-two seconds. While training for the 2000 Sydney Games, Vanderlei hurt his foot, leading to a seventy-fifth place finish with one of his slowest times ever (two hours, thirty-seven minutes, and eight seconds).
“I had to stop three times and walk,” Vanderlei reported. “Nobody knows what I had to go through to finish there. I got injured while preparing in Mexico, and I was never able to recover fully.”
He did recover fully, however, nearly matching his personal best, in 2001, in Japan, and winning in São Paulo in 2002. Previously, he had taken the gold at the 1999 Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and struck gold again, in hot and humid Santo Domingo, at the 2003 Pan-American Games.
“I don’t know how I managed to finish that race. The race was the toughest of my life. I don’t remember ever having that many thoughts of abandoning a race. I believe all those who were able to finish were heroes. I remember having no strength to complete the final lap at the track, and people told me I passed out for a few minutes at the end.”
His greatest ambition — and, indeed, the ambition of all marathoners — would be to run in the 2004 Athens Games, where Vanderlei could trace the steps of the legendary messenger, Philippides (or Pheidippides in some accounts), from the ancient city of Marathon to the Greek capital of Atenas, or Athens.
“That was a singular moment in my career,” he remembered. “It took twelve years of preparation for me to reach that point. Considering what happened, I look at it positively that I won an Olympic medal.”
He was going all the way. Not for silver, mind you, not even for bronze. Vanderlei had his heart set on winning the gold. He had trained for years for this moment. At the 35 kilometer mark, he found himself in the lead at Athens 2004, a mere half-a-minute ahead of his nearest challenger. Buoyed by an inspirational letter he received from Coach Ricardo (sent through another coach), Vanderlei appeared on the verge of victory.
The letter, in part, read as follows: “Remember the tough hill at 35km. If you are feeling well, take your risks, because if you don’t risk, you will never win.”
“I thought a lot about that letter,” Vanderlei reflected afterwards. “Especially once I started feeling well in the race … Perhaps some athletes thought I wasn’t going to lead for a long time, but that didn’t bother me at all.”
What never entered his mind was the fate of that fabled Philippides run. Charged with announcing the news of the Greek victory over the invading Persians at the Battle of Marathon (490 B.C.E.), Philippides ran the nearly 40 kilometer route (or 25 miles) to Athens. Upon reaching the city’s gates, the exhausted herald approached the ruling body and declared, “Hail to you! We’ve won!” Immediately after, the messenger collapsed and died.
To Vanderlei’s surprise — and to the surprise of spectators and journalists who lined the busy streets of modern-day Athens — he was rushed upon by a man dressed in an orange kilt, a green beret, and green socks. The man shoved Vanderlei off the course and onto the sidewalk, preventing him from going on with the race. But thanks to a burly, bearded Greek onlooker named Polyvios Kossivas, who pushed the assailant away and helped the runner to his feet, Vanderlei continued the race. Losing his rhythm as well as his focus, it took all of Vanderlei’s skill as an experienced marathoner to recover his momentum.
“The attack was a surprise for me. I couldn’t defend myself because I was concentrating on my race. I don’t know what would have happened if the Greek man who helped me so quickly hadn’t reacted the way he did. I give him a lot of credit for his courage.”
The assailant turned out to be a fanatical Irish priest named Cornelius “Neil” Horan, a man with a history of interfering in races and competitions. He was arrested (though given a suspended sentence) and fined a large sum. A year later, Horan was defrocked by the Catholic Church in Ireland.
“It was very difficult for me to finish,” Vanderlei summarized later. “With my sense of Olympic spirit I showed my determination and won a medal” — a bronze medal for third place.
Toward the end of the race, Vanderlei glided into the Panathinaikos Stadium with arms splayed in an airplane-like spread. Smiling broadly and blowing a kiss to the cheering stands, he wound his way over the finish line, physically drained and emotionally overwhelmed.
Nevertheless, his resolve to push on despite the mishap earned him a consolation prize: the prestigious Baron Pierre de Coubertin Award, given by the International Olympic Committee for those athletes who exemplified “the true spirit of sportsmanship.”
“When I entered the stadium, I was so happy that I had already forgotten the episode. It’s bronze but it means gold.”
This brought to mind the hallowed words of the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, who traveled to such far-flung places as Rome and Jerusalem, and, in between, the length and breadth of ancient Greece: “He fought the good fight, he finished the race, he kept the faith.”
For his having finished the race, Vanderlei was called upon once more, this time as one of the torchbearers charged with bringing the Olympic torch to Maracanã. But unlike his predecessor, the Greek Philippides, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima survived the ordeal and was accorded the honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron.
In an odd turn of events, Pelé, who was originally scheduled to perform the deed, decided on short notice, and within hours of the occurrence, to bow out of the ceremony, citing “poor health.” Could the former soccer great have been suffering the ill effects of prostate surgery? No, not possible. The surgery had taken place a year earlier, in May 2015. Cold feet, perhaps? Not likely. Whatever his reasons were, Pelé, unlike his fellow athlete Oscar Schmidt, had failed to show up.
The next in line would be Gustavo Kuerten, but Guga would have none of it. He graciously stepped aside to allow Vanderlei to take his proper place at the top of the steps leading to the cauldron.
When Cornelius “Neil” Horan, the fellow who pushed the runner off course in Athens, got wind of the news, his reaction confirmed the delusional state he’d been in for some time.
“When I actually saw him with my own eyes, I really got angry,” the former Catholic priest confessed to the New York Times. “I look[ed] at Vanderlei and I [thought], ‘You would be nowhere the star if not for me.’ ” We trust that Mr. Horan enjoyed his plate of sour grapes that evening.
Horan achieved a degree of notoriety when he danced an Irish jig for talent judge Simon Cowell on a 2009 episode of Britain’s Got Talent. In October 2004, Horan was charged by an Irish court with indecency involving a seven-year-old girl, an unsavory act that allegedly took place ten years prior. He was acquitted of all charges. However, the real-life judge in that case reminded the jury that one of Horan’s “character” witnesses, a clergyman, referred to the ex-priest as “a bit of a nutcase.”
(End of Part Five)
To be continued….
Copyright © 2018 by Josmar F. Lopes