Marathon Man

For each of the past two Sundays, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a little time in the house with the Olympics on. Each day, they showed a marathon, live and in full. Last Sunday it was the women and yesterday it was the men. In each case, the race was much more interesting than you would think 2+ hours of running would be.
You’ve of course heard by now about the controversy in yesterday’s race. Brazilian Vanderlei De Lima (no, he was not being played by Jason Alexander) led for most of the race, running out to as much as a 45 second lead over a large pack. With about 3 or so miles left and his lead down to about 30 seconds, De Lima was jumped by a crazy Irishman. The nutjob pushed De Lima to the side of the road before spectators and security freed him. De Lima lost some time, probably 5-10 seconds, and also his composure, at least for a bit. Shortly thereafter, Stefano Baldini of Italy and then Meb Keflezighi passed De Lima. De Lima settled for the bronze.
That’s where the controversy comes in. Brazil is asking for the IOC to award De Lima a gold medal as well, saying that he likely would have won without the attack.
I disagree.
First, some background on De Lima. He’s 35 years old and this is his third Olympics. In Atlanta eight years ago, he finished around 45th in the marathon. Four years ago in Sydney, he finished around 72nd. Clearly, he was not a favorite in this race. What he tried was a common distance race strategy for less-talented runners – go out early, build a big lead and try to hang on. The idea is that the more talented runners will let you go and try to run you down at the end, but they may not be able to make up enough ground. If you wait and try run with them the whole way, they’ll outkick you, so you try to win the race early. A good friend of mine used this strategy successfully in high school, narrowly beating his arch-rival in the indoor mile by holding him off after building a big lead.
The problem for De Lima is that he was running out of gas. Baldini and the others were gaining on him at the time he was jumped. When Baldini did finally pass him a short time later, he blew by him. Baldini ended up beating De Lima by a minute and 16 seconds. You can’t claim that all that time (plus the 29 seconds that he was behind at the time) is attributable to De Lima being pushed to the side for a few seconds. Additionally, American Keflezighi beat De Lima by 42 seconds.
To his credit, De Lima didn’t seem bitter at all. When he entered the stadium for his last two laps, he looked positively ecstatic. He made airplane arms and beamed, incredibly excited to be winning a medal after two Olympics of finishing way back in the pack.
So, let’s not tarnish a great race by muddying it up with post-event politics. Baldini won fair and square and De Lima ran a great race and finished third. There’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. Plus, De Lima gets to be a hero in Brazil, and that can’t be bad.

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