RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio got it right.
Vanderlei de Lima, who the lit Olympic cauldron to ignite the first Games in South America, is not a gold medalist. Nor a legendary Brazilian champion. Many at the Maracanã wouldn’t have recognized him tonight if he handed them popcorn.
But he was clearly the right man for the honor.
The Olympic creed states: “The important thing in life is not the triumph, but the fight; the essential thing is not to have won, but to have fought well.”
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, de Lima unpredictably led late in the marathon, after making his break at about the 13-mile mark.
His personal-best time for 26.2 miles, set six years earlier, was nearly four minutes slower than that of the pre-race favorite and world-record holder, Kenyan Paul Tergat.
De Lima, one of seven boys in a farming family, would not pull off the mighty upset, though.
A defrocked Irish priest infamously grabbed de Lima with about four miles left, taking him into a crowd along the route for a few seconds before a 53-year-old Athens salesman hopped over a barrier to help pull the intruder off de Lima.
De Lima only lost seven seconds in the incident. But his lead had already been nearly cut in half in the previous two miles, from 45 seconds to 25, and he still had those four miles to go. This was the knell to his gold-medal hopes.
Italian Stefano Baldini passed de Lima seven minutes after the defrocked priest grabbed him, with two miles left. American Meb Keflezighi followed suit shortly after.
But de Lima held on for the bronze medal, memorably blowing kisses in the final stretch and breaking into an airplane motion with his arms while deliberately swerving back and forth. He showed no disdain toward what had happened 20 minutes earlier.
Of all races, de Lima contested the trademark Olympic event, whose name was derived from the 490 BC story of Pheidippides, a Greek messenger who ran from the town of Marathon to Athens bearing the news of a Greek victory over Persians.
Of all places, this marathon ended at Panathinaiko Stadium, site of the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896.
“It was a moment of overcoming obstacles and of dreams coming true,” de Lima recalled in a 2008 NBC Olympics profile.
De Lima would be honored later that night at the medal ceremony before the Closing Ceremony. In addition to his bronze, he was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal, named after the founder of the modern Olympics, for “exceptional demonstration of fair play and Olympic values.”
That medal is exponentially rarer than a gold medal – given on average less than once per Olympics since its creation in 1964.
And now de Lima is the first person to complete this triple – Olympic medal, Pierre de Coubertin medal and final torch bearer.
Brazil had other great athletes they could have chosen for Friday night’s honor.
Iconic soccer player Pelé had been favored to light the cauldron ever since Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Games on Oct. 2, 2009.
Pelé, who never played in the Olympics, said earlier this week he was invited to light the cauldron, then on Friday pulled out of the Opening Ceremony altogether, citing poor health at 75 years old.
Late Friday afternoon, respected Brazilian outlet Universo Online reported tennis player Gustavo Kuerten was Pelé’s replacement.
Kuerten, a three-time French Open winner known for his Slinky-like movement and floppy brown hair, is beloved in Brazil.
In a poll asking 79,000 people who deserved to light the cauldron by Brazil’s largest media outlet, Globo, Kuerten received twice as many votes as the runner-up, five-time Olympic sailing medalist Robert Scheidt. De Lima was third, Pelé was fourth and Oscar Schmidt, the highest-scoring Olympic basketball player of all time, was fifth.
Kuerten ended up carrying the Olympic flame into the Maracanã, handing off to 1996 Olympic women’s basketball silver medalist Hortência.
Hortência passed to de Lima, who carried his torch up a flight of stairs and then dipped it into what looked like an oversized flower pot (intentionally small with low emission, as part of the green-friendly theme of the Opening Ceremony). De Lima smiled and held his torch as high as he could, with both hands cupping the bottom, for the crowd to see.
The pot then rose into what organizers call a hybrid cauldron. The Olympic flame was backdropped by a rotating sculpture by artist Anthony Howe, representing the sun, “the source of energy that we should exploit,” the program media guide said.
Since the flame isn’t visible outside the Maracanã, which won’t be used for much competition (just soccer semifinals and finals), a second cauldron was scheduled to be lit at 2 a.m. in the center of Rio de Janeiro, about five miles east of the Maracanã.