Historically, Brazil has not been a country recognised worldwide for its achievements in the long distance events especially on the roads, but something started to change in the early 1990’s.
If we go back in time, some historians mention the late José Romão Andrade da Silva, a great Steeplechaser from the 1970’s, as the man who modified the way people trained middle and long distance events in Brazil. However, it was Luiz Antônio dos Santos who carried the flag most prominently in the early 90’s, when he took the bronze medal in the Marathon at the 1995 IAAF World Championships in Gothenburg, Sweden.
In 1998 in Berlin, Brazilian Ronaldo da Costa produced the world's fastest ever time, beating the 10 year-old mark set by Ethiopian Belayneh Dinsamo (2:06:50), while running, then, an astonishing time of 2:06:05.
A marathon runner by chance
Still, this story is not about them, but about Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, a 35 year-old man, whose courage shook the world during the recent Athens Olympic Games when he was attacked by a spectator while leading the men's Marathon.
Despite missing out on the gold medal and finishing in third position, the episode has highlighted de Lima as an athlete and given him plenty of media attention.
Yet, there’s a lot more in de Lima's life story that’s worth knowing and needs to be recognised. A personal story and a career full of hard work and sacrifices which at the end have paid off greatly.
Vanderlei, the best South American male athlete of 2004 was born in Cruzeiro do Oeste, in the State of Paraná and has 6 siblings (2 brothers and 4 sisters). His mother, Aurora is still alive, but his father, José, passed away of few years ago.
“I was raised in Tapira, also in Paraná, and I used to help my family doing little jobs on farms. My first contact with the sport was through football, and my dream was to play for a professional team. I used to be a right back defender."
"I was introduced to athletics at the age of 14. A Physical Education teacher saw some potential in me, and my first victory was at a road race in the interior of Paraná.”
The coaching inspiration
Ricardo D’Angelo, one of the most respected coaches in Brazil has had a long time relationship with Vanderlei, and has been a key in his athletics success.
“I became a coach in 1980 after a short career as an athlete where I fell in love with the sport. The person who was a great influence on me was Sebastião Corrêa, who coached José Romão Andrade da Silva, and then became President of the Paulista Federation.”
“My relationship with Vanderlei started in 1992, and right now I also coach other athletes such as Elias Bastos, Eduardo do Nascimento, Adriano Bastos, Celso Ficagna, Vinícius Lopes, Gilson Vieira and João Stingelin.”
‘Rabbit’ becomes winner and an Olympian
Vanderlei became a Marathon runner by accident, actually, a couple of years after his relationship with D’Angelo started.
“In the autumn of 1994, I took part of the Reims Marathon, where I was supposed to be a rabbit up to the 21Km point. In the middle of the race I felt so comfortable that I decided to keep going. First to the 30Km mark, and then all the way to the end of the race, which I actually won in 2:11:06.”
In 1996, de Lima qualified for his first Olympic team, for the Atlanta Games, after running a South American record to win the Tokyo Marathon (2:08:38).
“Atlanta was definitely an experience. It was my first Olympic Games and I had trouble with my shoes during the race.”
The result was a 47th place with a 2:21:01 time, for the tough circuit of the hilly capital of the State of Georgia.
In the summer of 1997, Vanderlei got his first taste of the Olympic course at the Athens World Championships. In the race won by Spain’s Abel Antón in 2:13:36, the Brazilian finished in 23rd place with a time of 2:21:48.
1998 was a year of success. In taking second place in Tokyo in 2:08:31 he improved his own Area record. That performance was followed in the fall with a good 5th place in the New York City Marathon (2:10:42).
Pan-Am champion…and again
1999 brought his first major championship triumph with the victory at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg. Notable too was a third place showing in the Fukuoka at in December of the year in another sub 2:09 time (2:08:40).
With that in hand Vanderlei prepared for the Sydney Olympic Games hoping to better his Atlanta performance, and in the April of 2000 took third place this time in Rotterdam in 2:08:34.
However, some physical problems, such as an inflamed foot, conspired against his Olympic hopes in Australia, and Vanderlei finished trotting in the 75th place with a 2:37:08 time that says it all. It was his second Olympic disappointment
“I had to stop 3 times and walk. 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.”
2001 took him to Japan again but this time to race in Oita in February where he finished in a steady 2:10:02, and in 2002 he took a win in São Paulo in 2:11:19.
Significantly, for the man who would have to battle future hardships on the Olympic course in Athens, the following year saw de Lima run a gritty race to take a second Pan-American Games gold medal.
The hot and humid conditions in Santo Domingo in 2003 tested de Lima's mental and physical strength, and de Lima saw his second victory at the Pan American Games as a miracle.
“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. That race was dedicated to my father’s memory.”
The plan for Athens
After recovering from Santo Domingo, D’Angelo and Vanderlei traced the plan for Athens.
“We have a great relationship, and when I started running, he was starting his coaching career. We both learned a lot together”.
The preparation for the 2004 Olympic Games included a period of high altitude training in Paipa, Colombia, a city known for its thermal waters, that has become a paradise for distance athletes. There, encouraged by the best athletes of the region, Herder Vázquez and Jacinto López, de Lima started dreaming about a victory over the pre-race Olympic favourite, Paul Tergat, the World record holder.
López who beat de Lima at the Bogotá Half Marathon on 1 August, 4 weeks before the Athens race, always believed that felt the future Olympic bronze medallist was in great condition. He clocked 1:15:18, while finishing 5th in Bogotá.
“I believed he could be able to finish in the top five places, and perhaps give Paipa its first Olympic medal. That’s how proud we are of him, and that’s how close to him we feel”, said López.
A letter of faith
Ricardo D’Angelo was present in Athens, but didn’t have access to many key locations, since he wasn’t one of Brazil’s official coaches.
Yet, through another coach, João Paulo da Cunha, D’Angelo managed to give Vanderlei a letter to read prior to the race. The most important points of the letter symbolised the relationship between athlete and coach, and also reinforced some tactical plans.
“Remember the tough hill at 30Km. If you are feeling well, take your risks, because if you don’t risk, you will never win. My confidence in you is immense, so let’s fight for the goal we have been dreaming for a long time. No matter what happens in the end, remember that you will always have my trust and friendship, and also remember that I admire you for the wonderful person you are. So, good luck, and let’s have a beer together after the race,” concluded the text of D’Angelo’s message.
The athlete's response
“I thought a lot about the letter”, said de Lima. “Especially once I started feeling well in the race, and once I saw Tergat wasn’t having a good day. Perhaps some athletes felt that I wasn’t going to lead for a long time, but that didn’t bother me at all. The letter also helped me once I was attacked, because I knew I had to continue no matter what. I had lots of people behind me, and I wasn’t going to let them down.”
“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 (Polyvios Kossivas) hadn’t reacted the way he did. I give him a lot of credit for his courage.”
“Perhaps things could have been different, because I started to have problems after that, I couldn't concentrate. It was very difficult for me to finish. With my sense of Olympic spirit I showed my determination and won a medal”.
“Still, I am very proud of myself, because this is the result of very hard work. I was well trained and I was expecting to win a medal. I have achieved my goal, no matter what happened, and I am happy to be on the medal podium with these athletes.”
Still hungry for medals
That spirit has made Vanderlei a winner for many athletics fans worldwide, and later on made him the recipient of the Baron Pierre de Coubertin Award, given by the IOC.
Now, those fans will see de Lima three times next year. The altitude of Paipa will have him preparing for another marathon to be contested in the first part of the year. Then, the Helsinki World Championships will follow, and his racing calendar includes another marathon in the autumn of 2005.
“I’m still hungry. I want to win another important medal”, concluded de Lima, Brazil’s newest hero.
Eduardo Biscayart for the IAAF
Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima
Born: Cruzeiro do Oeste, Paraná, on 11 August 1969. 1.68m; 54Kg. Represents BM&F Club.
Mile: 4:06.72 ‘90
3000m: 8:02.81 ‘98
5000m: 13:55.4 ‘97
10000m: 28:08:03 ‘98
15Km: 43:45 ‘93
Half Marathon: 1:01:24 ‘95
Marathon: 2:08:31 ‘98
Top 10 performances in Marathon
2:08:31 2 Tokyo 08.02.98
2:08:34 3 Rotterdam 16.04.00
2:08:38 1 Tokyo 12.02.96
2:08:40 3 Fukuoka 05.12.99
2:09:39 1 Hamburg 18.04.04
2:10:02 2 Oita 04.02.01
2:10:38 12 Fukuoka 07.12.03
2:10:42 5 New York, NY 01.11.98
2:11:06 1 Reims 23.10.94
2:11:19 1 São Paulo 14.07.02