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Kidnapping threats send marathon champion into exile

7 October 1999 (AP) – Brazilian marathon runner Ronaldo da Costa left Rio de Janiero last week after being alerted to a kidnap attempt, for the third time in two weeks. There was no time for the race he had come to participate in, no time to go and say goodbye to his family and friends in Brazil. There wasn't even time to pack.

"I don't understand why," da Costa said through an interpreter. "I'm very innocent. I'm trying to do my job and somebody is trying to kidnap me. It is the biggest shock I've had.

"I'm scared to go back to Brazil."

Da Costa, who is set to take part in the Chicago Marathon on October 24, has lived a frenzied life since September 1998, when he won the Berlin Marathon in 2 hours, 6 minutes, and 5 seconds. That time shattered Belayneh Densamo's world best performance that had stood for 10 years, by a full 45 seconds.

He became an instant celebrity in Brazil, even being dubbed "Ronaldinho" - the little Ronaldo - to distinguish him from soccer star Ronaldo. A Brazilian television crew flew to Berlin and accompanied him home, and then flew him by helicopter to his rural hometown of Descoberto.

Reporters followed him wherever he went, and he was on television all the time. Fans were constantly asking for a picture or autograph. He even got stopped when he was training.

"He's a very likeable person," said his agent, Luis Felipe Posso. "We went to Monaco last November for the World Athletics Gala and after we checked into the hotel we went for a walk. There was a group of Brazilian tourists and everybody recognised him."

While da Costa didn't mind his newfound fame, it carried an ugly undertone. Violence, fueled by drugs and high unemployment, has soared in Brazil in recent years, and da Costa was a natural target.

Da Costa was so shaken by the kidnapping attempts he withdrew from the Great North Run, a half-marathon this Sunday in Newcastle, England. He could barely think about running, let alone a race.

He considered also dropping out of the Chicago Marathon, even though the course sets up perfectly for him, fast and flat just like Berlin's. But last week, he moved to Boulder, Colorado, and started running again.

"My mind is clean and I'm ready to go," da Costa said. "I think I can perform a good race, but I recognise I'm not in the same shape as I was before the kidnapping attempt.

"I'm focusing on training and doing my best," he added. "I'm in very good mental shape, though my physical shape is 10 percent less than before."

Da Costa is uncomfortable talking about the kidnapping attempts. Besides wanting to forget about them, he knows the suspects were never caught and he worries about the family he left in Brazil.

It's that lack of security that's convinced him to stay in the United States. No one bothers him there. He and his girlfriend can go out for pizza at night and be left alone. He can have a life again, just like everyone else.

"I'd like to stay here," he said. "I have peace of mind."