In a dramatic finale to the event that was always going to define these Olympic Games in their spiritual home, Stefano Baldini of Italy brought the competition to a close with a judicious run on the celebrated course from Marathon to Athens. But this is a race that will be remembered not for Baldini's victory but for the bizarre incident three miles from home when the leader, Vanderlei de Lima of Brazil, was dragged from the road by a member of the crowd in the first serious security breach of the Games. Police later named the man as Irishman Cornelius Horan, who was jailed for two months last year after running on to the Silverstone track during the British grand prix.
De Lima was beginning to tire at the time, but the shock lost him a further 10 valuable seconds and left him clutching his right thigh. He said afterwards that the incident had lost him the race, but Baldini was already closing fast, and within five minutes, the Italian swept by, followed by Meb Keflezighi of the US.
Baldini's winning time 2hr 10min 54sec, a new record on the ancient course is exactly the same as his compatriot Gelindo Bordin clocked to win the corresponding race in Seoul 1988. The 42.195 kilometre race was added to the inaugural modern Games here in 1896, as a tribute to the legend of the messenger Phillipides who delivered news of the Athenian triumph against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490BC, a victory that ensured the survival of the infant democracy, and ushered in the Classic Hellenic Age.
The race detours around the Tomb of the Fallen Warriors, just outside the town of Marathon, and there were warriors on the road last night, on one of the toughest marathon courses in the world.
The bravest among them was de Lima who made a long run for home in the middle of the hilliest part of the course. At one point the Brazilian had a lead of close to a minute over race favourite Paul Tergat of Kenya, Baldini, Keflezighi and Britain's Jon Brown.
Whether he would have won or not, will will never know but he received the consolation of the biggest cheer of the night in the ancient stadium, and a sportsmanship medal from the IOC, as he clung on to third, thus relegating Brown in his second successive Olympic marathon to fourth.
That position was once characterised by a saner Irishman, Eamonn Coghlan, to whom it also happened, as the, “loneliest place in athletics” and Brown was too distraught to talk afterwards.
The Brazilian Olympic Committee later announced that they would appeal to the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, asking for a review of the final result.
Marcos Vinicius, the Brazilian chef de mission, had been turned down by the IOC when he suggested that gold medals should be presented to both De Lima and Baldini.