On this day in 2004, Brazilian distance runner Vanderlei de Lima is attacked by a spectator while running the marathon, the final event of the Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. At the time of the incident, De Lima had a 30-second lead in the race with four miles to go.
De Lima, whom few had picked to be a contender, surprised the crowd by taking the lead at the 13-mile mark. After extending his lead for the next nine miles, he was suddenly approached from his left side by a bystander from Ireland named Cornelius Horan. Wearing an orange kilt, green knee socks and a green beret, Horan shoved de Lima out of the middle of the course and into the crowd, stopping the runner’s progress. A subsequent investigation revealed that the mentally unbalanced Horan, a defrocked Irish priest, was simply looking for publicity. (Horan had spent two months in prison in 2003 for standing in the middle of the race track at the British Grand Prix for a full 20 seconds as race cars swerved to avoid hitting him.) As De Lima was subdued by security guards, De Lima resumed running, still in the lead. However, with just over two miles remaining in the race, he was overtaken by Stefano Baldini of Italy, who took home the gold. Meb Keflezighi of the United States also passed de Lima to win the silver medal; De Lima finished in third.
A shaken de Lima told the assembled press after the race, ”I was not expecting it at all. I couldn’t defend myself. I was totally concentrated on my race. I had to get back into my competitive rhythm, and I really lost a lot of it. It’s extremely difficult to find that rhythm again.”
De Lima was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal for sportsmanship at the closing ceremonies by the International Olympic Committee.