Propelled by a steady consistent late race run, Stefano Baldini became only the second Italian to win an Olympic marathon title.
The 33-year-old two-time World Championships bronze medallist reached the finish in Panathinaiko Stadium in 2:10:55, 34 seconds ahead of surprise silver medallist Mebrahtom Keflezighi of the United States.
Brazilian Vanderlei de Lima, who led for more than half the race, held on courageously for the bronze, bouncing back after he was nearly tackled by a spectator who ran onto the course one hour and fifty-two minutes into the race. The 35-year-old Brazilian clocked 2:12:11.
After some unusual, if brief surges in the opening half by South African Hendrik Raamala, de Lima took firm control of the race just before the 20 kilometre point, and reached the half in a conservative 1:07:23, 15 seconds ahead of a chase pack of nearly two dozen.
The Brazilian, winner of this year's Olympus Hamburg Marathon, built a formidable lead, at one point ahead by nearly a minute-and-a-half. When the field began to disperse by the 35th kilometre, Baldini, Keflezighi and Paul Tergat looked best prepared to challenge de Lima, who was still 30 seconds ahead.
Though his lead began to slowly dwindle in the 36th kilometre, the most unfortunate and bizarre incident of the Games nearly knocked him for good. Having lost several critical seconds of his lead when he was shoved of the course and into the crowd, he reemerged on the course with an anguished look of pain, surprise and frustration covering his face. That he held on to win a medal will be one of the most memorable moments of these Olympic Games.
"It was such a shock, I really wasn't expecting that at all," said de Lima, after contesting his third Olympic marathon. "And I must say that I really couldn't defend myself, I was completely concentrating on the course. Then I had to get back into my competition, which was very, very difficult. Obviously if you stop in the middle of a marathon, it's really really difficult to get your rhythm again."
Refusing to say that the podium positions may have different had he not been impeded, de Lima added, "I don't know if I could have won, but obviously things would have been different. The finish was extremely difficult for me."
The man who attacked de Lima was reportedly an Irishman who had disprupted other sporting events in the past, including a Formula One race earlier this year. Both Baldini and Keflezighi, nearly a hundred metres behind at that point, said they didn't see the incident.
- in the spirit of fair play and in recognition of the courage he showed during this incident the IOC awarded de Lima with the Pierre de Coubertin medal -
Baldini passed de Lima exactly two hours into the race, about ten seconds ahead of the American, a lead he extended to more than 30 seconds when he entered Panathinaiko. Realising that he had the bronze secured, de Lima danced across the line, blowing kisses to the crowd.
One of the most consistent marathon racers of the past decade, Baldini’s win was the first major title of his career, while Keflezighi’s medal was the first for the United States since Frank Shorter’s silver medal in 1976.
For the second consecutive Olympic race, Jon Brown of Great Britain was fourth, clocking 2:12.26. Japan's Shigeru Aburaya (2:13.11) and Toshinari Suwa (2:13:30) were fifth and sixth, in front of Kenyan Eric Wainaina, the first African to reach the line.
Tergat’s quest for an elusive Olympic gold medal ended tonight. As close as third at the 35 kilometre point, the World record holder in the event faded badly in the final two kilometres, to finish a distant tenth in 2:14.45.
"It was an unbelievable sensation because Panathinaiko is the story of the marathon, so it's a fantastic feeling. It is unbelievable for me," confirmed Baldini. "I knew I had the finish to catch him (de Lima). It was no problem because I knew that I had the strength over the last four to five kilometres."
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF