Cruz doesn't realize why the friend is smiling. He thinks he isn't being believed. "I'm serious," he says. "When I was in a bad mood, I wouldn't even say good morning. Luiz said people would think I was arrogant. He made me remember when I was a boy. He said if I had met Pel� and he had refused to say anything, would I not have been disappointed? I got to be better."
It is an instructive exchange. When one comes to know Cruz, his insistence that he wasn't always such an engaging creature crops up often. He is a layered man now, with gentle manners and eloquent eyebrows and the words to express subtle distinctions and therefore the ability to shade or distract you from his earlier, harder strata. To his great credit, he never does that. His early life and nature are always there, the granite a few inches beneath mountain-meadow flowers.
Candid soul that he is, when telling how he reached Olympian heights he always speaks of de Oliveira. "I did it all for him," he says simply.
Cruz was born in 1963 in Taguatinga, Brazil, a city of 300,000 near Brasilia. His father, Joaquim Sr., had brought his wife and five children from the state of Piaui, in the north, in 1959 so that he could labor in the construction of the new capital city. Joaquim Jr., the runner-to-be, was the baby of the family.
Later, in the Brazilian press, Cruz would be called a favelado, meaning the product of a favela, what Brazilians call a classically horrid, hopeless slum. De Oliveira says Cruz's circumstances were not that destitute. Though humble, the Cruz home provided the bare necessities. "It was always clean," says de Oliveira. "It had water and sanitation. His parents worked, and cared about nutrition, so there was always food."
Of a sort. "I grew up poor," Cruz said lightly when asked one day whether fish would be all right for dinner. "That means I eat anything." The family was held together by Joaquim Sr.'s incessant work in heavy steel fabrication, for which he received the equivalent of $40 a month, and by the loving rectitude of his wife, Lydia. "My mother read the Bible every day and prayed every day," Cruz recalls. "My mother never let anybody do parties in our house." Cruz the child adopted her sober ways. "I've always been very close to my mother."
With his father, he never felt intimate. "I only started to get to know him when I was 16 or so," says Cruz. "Before that, he worked from before dawn until after we kids were in bed. He was quiet. My mother had gone to school long enough to learn how to read and write. But my father never had. He didn't ask about teachers or my schoolwork, maybe because he didn't know how."
Or because he was absorbed in the difficult task of making ends meet. "The problem," says Cruz, "was that we didn't have a house of our own. So he had to buy food and pay rent for the house, both. Sometimes my mother had to work. When I was eight, I used to shine shoes. Weekends I went to the fair with my father to sell oranges."
Eventually, after a period when all the family members were asked to scrounge meals elsewhere, Joaquim Sr. saved enough to buy a little house. Gradually, he improved it, replacing its dirt floor with one of wood.
Then Joaquim Sr. fell ill. His gallbladder was removed. "After that he was too sick to work in heavy construction," says Cruz. "He began delivering iron and steel to the construction sites with a horse cart. He was always up at 3 or 4 a.m. to care for his two horses. We had no place to keep them, and they were turned out for the night. But the government would take them if they were found on the street, so he had to get up before the horsecatcher. When I was little, I used to help him, but when I started running and training, 4:30 was too early. I worried about him. He kept looking for food even though he was sick."