Keflezighi puts silver lining in cloud of men's marathon

Medal first for U.S. since '76

disturbance affects event

Italy's Baldini takes gold

Athens Olympics -- 2004

The Games Conclude

August 30, 2004|By Dan Mihalopoulos | Dan Mihalopoulos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ATHENS - In a men's Olympic marathon as unique as the old marble stadium where the race ended, an American born in East Africa finished second yesterday for the first U.S. medal in the event in 28 years.

American Meb Keflezighi's historic silver-medal finish followed a disturbing incident in which a defrocked Irish priest rushed onto the road to tackle race leader Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil roughly three miles from the end of the race between Marathon and Athens.

Officers freed de Lima from the intruder's clutches, and he returned to the course physically unhurt but grimacing and shaking his head. De Lima soon faded to third place, with Stefano Baldini of Italy entering Panathinaiko Stadium first to rapturous applause from tens of thousands of fans at the site of the first modern Games in 1896.

"If that spectator didn't jump in front of me in the middle of the race, who knows what would have happened?" said de Lima, 33, at the finish. "I was very afraid. I lost my rhythm."

As difficult as it was to regain his composure and rhythm, de Lima declined to blame organizers for a security lapse he called "an isolated incident."

Olympic organizers responded to terrorism fears by spending a record $1.2 billion on measures such as Patriot missile batteries and a surveillance blimp that hovered yesterday over the finish line and the closing ceremony.

But short of fencing in entire race routes, there is little that organizers of events such as an Olympic marathon or the Tour de France can do to entirely deter would-be interlopers.

The intruder at yesterday's marathon was identified as Cornelius Horan. He wore a green tam hat, a red kilt, knee-high socks and a message on his chest: "The Second Coming is near." Another sign on his back read, "The Grand Prix Priest Israel Fulfillment of Prophecy Says the Bible," the Associated Press reported.

Dressed in a costume similar to the one he wore yesterday, Horan ran onto the track at the British Grand Prix in July 2003. Formula 1 drivers swerved around him as he held a sign to promote reading the Bible.

"I really couldn't defend myself," de Lima said. "Someone simply attacked me with his whole body. ... It could have happened anywhere."

Fighting to catch up with de Lima, Keflezighi and Baldini saw the commotion ahead of them. Keflezighi spoke to Baldini in Italian.

"I told Baldini, `Let's go get him,' " Keflezighi said.

Though the temperature was not as high yesterday as during the women's marathon last week, the 86-degree reading at the start was far hotter than the ideal conditions for a fast 26.2-mile race.

Baldini's winning time of 2 hours, 10 minutes, 55 seconds was six minutes slower than the world record set last year by Kenyan Paul Tergat, who faded to 10th place here. Twenty out of 101 starters did not make it to the stadium.

Just as fellow American Deena Kastor did in the women's marathon, Keflezighi, 29, said he wore an "ice vest" before the race to dull the effects of the bright Mediterranean sun. And, like Kastor, he paced himself for a strong finishing kick.

Kastor won a surprise bronze Aug. 22. Keflezighi's silver medal yesterday means the United States earned medals in both the men's and women's marathons for the first time at the same Games.

"Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful," said Keflezighi, who came to the United States from his native Eritrea at age 10. "Going in, I wasn't a favorite, but that's why we run the race."

He became the first American to win a medal in an Olympic men's marathon since Frank Shorter earned silver in Montreal in 1976. No American has won the men's marathon gold since Shorter in Munich in 1972.

After far surpassing low expectations, Keflezighi said, "There should be no question about" the resurgence of U.S. distance running.

Like Kastor after the women's race, Baldini, 33, said he was especially moved by the spectacle of the finish at the Panathinaiko Stadium. The setting sun cast a pinkish glow on the stands, which were three-quarters full, and gave a purplish hue to Hymettos, the mountain visible from downtown Athens.

"This is really the stuff of legends, what I'm living through," said Baldini, who placed third in the last two world championship marathons.

The runners began at Marathon, now a suburb of the Greek capital on the far side of Hymettos, and followed in the footsteps of ancient Greek messenger Pheiddipides. According to legend, Pheiddipides dropped dead in 490 B.C. after running to inform the Athenians that the Persian invaders were repelled in the famous battle at Marathon.

In 1896, the last time a men's Olympic marathon followed the historic route, Greece's crown prince and prince leapt from their seats to join Greek shepherd Spyros Louis as he raced to victory. The lone Greek competitor yesterday was Nikolaos Polias, who finished 24th.

The international track federation late yesterday refused an appeal from Brazilian officials who complained about the incident that broke de Lima's front-running stride.

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