Three miles from the finish, the marathon leader was grabbed by a defrocked priest wearing a red kilt, green beret and matching knee-high socks. An American won a medal — something that hadn't happened in 28 years.
Definitely a bizarre way to end an Olympics. Panathinaiko Stadium hasn't hosted anything this weird since a pair of Greek princes ran alongside Spiridon Louis to the finish line 108 years ago.
Italy's Stefano Baldini surged ahead with two miles to go and American Meb Keflezighi finished a surprising second in a race disrupted by a costumed intruder from Ireland.
With three miles left, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil was clinging to a shrinking lead when he was shoved into the curbside throng by the assailant. De Lima was able to get back into the race, but lost several more seconds and ended up with the bronze medal.
The 29-year-old Keflezighi, who emigrated from the African nation of Eritrea at age 10, is the first American to medal in the men's marathon since Frank Shorter's silver in 1976. Deena Kastor won the bronze in the women's marathon a week ago, marking the first time the United States had won two medals in the 26.2-mile race at the same Olympics.
"USA running is back," Keflezighi said. "Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful. Coming in I was not a favorite, I'm just very happy to win a silver."
De Lima drew big cheers from the crowd at the finish line in the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped stadium that was the site of the first modern Olympics 108 years ago. He smiled broadly, spread his arms like wings and weaved from side to side as he crossed the line.
Later, he said the intruder cost him a shot at the gold.
"When I saw the man who was jumping on me I was scared, because I didn't know what could happen to me, whether he was armed with a knife, a revolver or something and whether he was going to kill me," de Lima said.
"If you stop in a marathon, you struggle the next three or four kilometers. It's hard to get your rhythm back," he said. "I don't know if I would have won, but things would have been different."
A protest filed by the Brazilian track federation asking that de Lima be given a duplicate gold was denied by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Brazil said it would appeal that decision to the independent Court of Arbitration for Sport, whose decision would be final.
The International Olympic Committee said it would present de Lima with the Pierre de Coubertin medal in recognition of his "exceptional demonstration of fair play and Olympic values."
The race began in the suburb of Marathon as the sun set, casting a rose-colored light over the stadium, which was about three-quarters full. The runners followed the steep, difficult course over which, legend says, Pheidippides carried the news in 490 B.C. that the Greeks had defeated the Persians in the Battle of Marathon.
Baldini finished in 2 hours, 10 minutes and 54 seconds. He waved his hands in celebration, then dropped to his knees in exhaustion after his final lap on the narrow track inside the stadium. The 33-year-old Italian is the former European marathon champion and two-time world marathon silver medalist.
Keflezighi, the American record holder at 10,000 meters, showed little emotion at the finish, crossing himself and putting up a No. 1 sign with his finger. Baldini was lying on his back nearby, and Keflezighi bent over him in congratulations.
He ran a personal-best 2:11.29, 34 seconds behind the winner. De Lima finished in 2:12.11.
Keflezighi, who has 11 brothers and sisters, became a U.S. citizen in 1998. In Eritrea, he lived in a hut that had no electricity. When he saw his first car at age 10, he ran away because it scared him. He remembers soldiers surrounding his village, looking for boys 12 and older to drag off to war. His brothers would hide in the bushes to avoid them.
His family first moved to Italy, then to San Diego in 1987, when Meb — whose full name is Mebrahtom — was 12.
He didn't begin running until junior high in San Diego, then went to UCLA, where he won the NCAA 5,000 and 10,000 titles in 1997, a year before he became a citizen.
The three-time U.S. 10,000-meter champion was 12th in that event in the Sydney Olympics. He won the 10,000 at the U.S. trials this year, but chose to run the marathon instead. Like Kastor, he lives in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where he trains in the high Sierras.
For three weeks leading up to the Olympics, he shifted his training to the hills of Crete, becoming a popular fixture among the resort staff where the U.S. track and field team set up its pre-Olympic camp.
Keflezighi and Baldini spoke in Italian as the two chased de Lima.
"I told Baldini, `Let's go get him,"' Keflezighi said.
De Lima led by as much as 46 seconds before Baldini, Keflezighi and Kenyan Paul Tergat began to narrow the gap. As de Lima led the runners through the streets of Athens to the cheers of flag-waving onlookers, the intruder struck. He came from de Lima's left and pushed him all the way to the curb and into the crowd.
De Lima pushed himself free and kept running, but he was passed a mile later.
Police quickly tackled and arrested the intruder, who had a piece of paper attached to his back bearing the message: "The Grand Prix Priest Israel Fulfillment of Prophecy Says the Bible."
Police identified him as Cornelius Horan, who arrived earlier in the day. In July 2003, Horan, wearing a similar costume, ran onto the track during the British Grand Prix and stayed there for more than 20 seconds, forcing racers to swerve around him.
"I think the Olympic spirit prevailed and I prevailed. I was able to show that determination wins races," de Lima said after receiving his bronze.
"Never mind the result of the appeal," he said. "I'm very happy to have won this medal."
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