Athletics: Feat of the other Ronaldo

Simon Turnbull studies the rich talents of a Brazilian who is an unlikely flag-bearer
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ALL WEEK Ronaldo has been headline news back home. In Brazil they have been wondering how on earth he did it. In Europe Ronaldo has been shrugging his shoulders and telling his bemused inquisitors: "It just happened." Like the Ronaldo mystery in Paris on 12 July, this one will run and run, which is precisely what Ronaldo da Costa did through the streets of Berlin last Sunday. He ran so quickly, in fact, he supplanted Ronaldo Luiz Lazario, temporarily at least, as the leading Brazilian flag- bearer on the world sporting stage.

"Perhaps you should call me the little Ronaldo," the 5ft 3in marathon man suggested, distancing himself from the 6ft footballer of the same name. There was nothing small, though, about the feat with which the running Ronaldo made a name for himself a week ago. In the 2hr 6min and 5sec it took him to complete the 25th Berlin Marathon, he broke the 10- year-old world best time for the marathon (held by Belanyeh Dinsamo of Ethiopia) by a margin of 45 seconds. He did so averaging 4min 48sec per mile, less than 3min per kilometre, covering the second half in 61min 23sec after reaching halfway in 64:42.

It was a staggering piece of speed endurance, as staggering as the celebratory cartwheel Ronaldo had energy left to perform after crossing the finish line - and the fact that the little Brazilian has remained in Europe to contest the world half-marathon championship race in Zurich today. It equated to Emil Zatopek's epic hour-breaking 20,000m run of 1951 sustained over twice the distance plus an additional two kilometres. But what has astonished the distance running world more than the remarkable run itself is the fact that Ronaldo accomplished it. Eight days ago he was not so much unheralded as unheard of, even in his homeland.

He did make an international mark in 1994, finishing third behind Khalid Skah and German Silva in the world half-marathon race in Oslo. But that hardly earmarked the former farm-hand from Descoberto, a country town 500km north of Rio de Janeiro, as an heir apparent to the marathon world record. Neither did Ronaldo's more recent form: knocked out in the 10,000m heats in the 1996 Olympics, fifth in his debut marathon in Berlin last year (in 2:09:07) and in the nether regions of the world ranking lists this year with 13:44.05 for 5,000m and 28:07.73 for 10,000m.

So how did the 28-year-old also-ran run his way past the all-time greats of the marathon? Reluctantly, for a start. "I don't like the marathon," Ronaldo protested as he recovered in his Berlin hotel room last week. "I prefer the 5,000m and the 10,000m. My coach, Carlos Alberto Cavalheiro, persuaded me to come back to run another marathon. He said the conditions and the course would be right for me to run a fast time. But we were not thinking about the world record. It just happened. It wasn't until my manager, Luis Posso, shouted 'Go for it', with three kilometres left, that I knew it was on."

Posso had good reasons to encourage his client: 200,000 of them. Ronaldo and his manager collected $200,000 up front. They can also expect to pocket $250,000 in appearance money alone from his future races as a reluctant but rich marathon man. "This will make Ronaldo a millionaire," Posso predicted. More immediately, it will make Ronaldo a new family home in Descoberto for himself, his 11 brothers and his 70-year-old mother, Efigenia, who lives on a $130-a-month state pension.

It would have probably been different if Ronaldo had continued to follow his first sporting love - football, naturally. As recently as 1993, the year after he made his international debut as a runner (placing 21st in the Great North Run), he was playing amateur football with his home town club, Descoberto FC. "I was a forward," he reflected, "a fast forward, but not the most skilful. I was not going to become a professional so I decided to give up my football, give up my farm job and try running full-time."

It was a wise move. Five years later Ronaldo has made national sporting history. He is the first Brazilian runner to break a world record. He is not the first boy from Brazil to enter track and field's world record book but Adhemar Ferreira Da Silva, Nelson Prudencio and Joao Carlos de Oliveira were non-runners. All three were triple jumpers.

De Oliveira was still a world record holder when he lost his right leg in a car crash in 1982. Remarkably, at the age of 44, the Sao Paulan has returned to competition as a long jumper with an artificial leg. The running Ronaldo will not be the only Brazilian on the global glory trail the year after next. The inspirational De Oliveira, an Olympic bronze medallist in 1976 and 1980, will be going for Paralympic gold in Sydney.