My Sportsman Choice: Vanderlei de Lima
Posted: Tuesday November 9, 2004 2:20PM; Updated: Thursday November 11, 2004 10:58AM
By S.L. Price
It's not even a tough decision. Lance Armstrong? Won it already. Michael Phelps? Sure, he collected his Olympic medals with class and dominance, but don't you think his marketing team -- the same marketing team that goosed the pre-Olympic media storm with overhype about Phelps breaking Mark Spitz's record -- is already gaming out ways for Team Michael to cash in? Why give them the satisfaction? No, this is an award beyond packaging, beyond predictability. Who says the winner must be famous, or even American? Who says the winner needs to be a winner at all?
Vanderlei de Lima is my choice as Sports Illustrated's 2004 Sportsman of the Year.
To understand this, you have to remember what it means to be sporting. You have to remember what he did and where. Perhaps most of all, you have to remember the year.
The defining issue in the world in 2004 was war. The defining issue in sports in 2004 was drugs. There's not much light there, not much fun. Meanwhile, the biggest sporting event in 2004 was the Summer Olympics in Athens, which quickly became an event weirdly impossible to put your arms around. Wonderful things kept happening on the fields, in the arenas, but every such moment came tainted by judging mishaps, the constant cloud of drugs, the underlying fear of a terrorist attack. The 2004 Summer Games may have been a perfect microcosm of the current state of the sports world -- and beyond -- but it lacked the moment we all want from an Olympics: That unexpected, frivolous but somehow unforgettable gift that gets unwrapped along with all those other priceless Olympic moments forever onward.
Then, in the games' very last hours, we got one.
De Lima, a marathoner from Brazil, was leading the race at the 23rd mile when he was attacked. A defrocked Irish priest grabbed De Lima and shoved him into the crowd. Here was what we had been waiting for. Here was the danger most feared in Athens, the danger feared in all our lives now: An attack, unprovoked and random and unrepentantly mean. The Athens organizers had spent well over $1 billion on security, but now security had failed; an athlete had been assaulted on the route where the marathon, where sports, had begun so long ago. In a small way, it brought home today's truth: You can spend all you want, you can demand that authorities blanket the airports and malls with reassuring men in uniform. But, in the end, if some bitter clown is willing to risk himself to do damage? Some damage will get done.
With help, de Lima got himself free of his attacker. He kept on running. The moment passed from frightening to absurd. A defrocked Irish priest? Wrong religion, wrong country. There didn't seem to be a weapon. Watching it, you laughed a little. It was a relief to laugh. de Lima wasn't a pre-race favorite, and he'd already begun to fade before the attack, so it's likely that he wouldn't have won. He finished third, got himself a bronze medal. That seemed right, nice even. And had that been the end of it, de Lima would've faded into memory, just another victim of something he couldn't understand.
But de Lima did something more. He was in the middle of a race, remember, so no P.R. flak could've planted the idea in his head. This was instinctive. This was human. The final lap of the marathon took place at Panathinaiko Stadium, Athens' gorgeous old marble shell. De Lima came into the stadium under the harsh spotlights, under the eyes of a world that wanted to feel sorry for him. But he didn't want that. He wanted to play. So he grinned, and stuck out his arms like wings. He dipped one arm and banked, dipped the other and banked; he made like a 5-year-old and did a fine imitation of an airplane skittering back and forth across a runway. In the final lap of a race that, certainly, all his friends would soon tell him he'd been robbed of, de Lima didn't look angry. He was ... enjoying himself.
He was 35 years old. How many more Olympics would he ever have? How many nights breaking into the light of Athens? No one was going to take that from him. Later, of course, lawyers would get involved and try to muster pity and protest that Vanderlei de Lima should be awarded the gold medal. But on that day, in the honest heat of the race, his message couldn't have been clearer: Let everyone else feel sad. I'm alive. I'm in the Olympics. Attack me? I'll just go harder. Throw me off my rhythm? I'll finish. You can't bring me down. In fact, I am going to fly.
Sports Illustrated will announce the 2004 Sportsman of the Year winner on FOX on November 28. Check back every weekday until then to read more Sportsman picks from SI writers.