Joaquim Cruz, longtime San Diego resident, got a call two weeks ago. It was from Brazil. Could he get down here?
He received a similar call nine years earlier, when organizers of the Pan American Games in Rio asked him to fly down to be part of Opening Ceremony. He politely declined. They told him it was “something special.” He told them he already had something special, a wedding he had committed to attending. They told him it was “more special.”
They wanted him to light the cauldron. He got on a plane.
This time, it didn’t take much convincing. They didn’t tell him what he’d be doing at Opening Ceremony of the first Olympics in South America, only that he’d be doing something and he couldn’t tell anybody. They were serious - nobody!
“I didn’t tell any of my friends,” Cruz said. “Then I get a ton of texts from people: ‘Hey, I saw you on TV. I didn’t know you know were going to be there.’”
Cruz, a 1984 gold medalist in track’s 800 meters, was one of eight Brazilian sports figures who carried the Olympic flag Friday night, traditionally one of the most reverent moments that comes toward the end of the ceremony, the stadium hushed, a lone spotlight on the flag as it solemnly is paraded through the sea of athletes on the infield.
“It was a moment mixed with a lot of feelings,” said Cruz, 53, who won a silver in the 800 in 1988 and ran in a third Summer Games in 1996. “When I was young, I dreamed of being somebody - anybody. When I walked into the stadium, that’s the first thing that came to me: ‘Today I’m somebody. The world is watching us.’
“Everything just went in slow motion.”
Cruz grew up in Taguatinga in central Brazil, the son of a steel worker. He didn’t start running seriously until age 13, but two years later he had already clocked 1 minute, 44.30 seconds in the 800 - a time that would have won this year’s U.S. Olympic Trials by nearly a half-second.
By 1983 he was on scholarship at Oregon and winning the NCAA title. The following year, he won the 800 and 1,500. Later that year, he won gold at the Los Angeles Olympics and remains one of five men to ever have run under 1:42.
He was passed on the final stretch of the 1988 final by Kenya’s Paul Ereng and got the silver. That was September. A month later - on Halloween - he moved from Eugene to San Diego because the damp Oregon weather gave him bad allergies.
He rented an apartment on Genesee Avenue near San Diego Mesa College, where he trained. In the early 1990s, he and his wife bought a home in University City and have been there ever since.
He has coached track at La Jolla High, Point Loma High, Clairemont High and UC San Diego. Since 2005, he has coached at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, predominantly with Paralympic track athletes. He has nine going to Rio in September for the Paralympics that follow the able-bodied Games.
Cruz, it turns out, is not the first person from the Olympic Training Center to carry the Olympic flag at Opening Ceremony. Former center director Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley did in 1996 in Atlanta, where Cruz was Brazil’s flag bearer.
Having already lit a cauldron for a major international sporting event in Rio, Cruz figured he wouldn’t do it again. But who would?
The obvious choice was Pele, which seemed an even greater likelihood after the 75-year-old soccer legend was awarded the Olympic Order, the International Olympic Committee’s highest honor, in June by IOC president Thomas Bach. Professionals were barred from the Olympics in Pele’s day, and he had turned pro as a teen-ager before playing in an Olympics.
But on Friday, just hours before Opening Ceremony at Maracana Stadium, Pele announced he was unable to attend. He cited health complications from a recent hip replacement. Another reason was floated: Sponsors killed it. Pele has commercial endorsement contracts with MasterCard, Hublot watches and Subway sandwiches; and Visa, Omega and McDonald’s are official Olympic sponsors.
“Pele gave an interview the day before,” Cruz said. “He was in a suit. He walked a little bit. And Muhammad Ali was in worse shape than Pele when he lit the cauldron in Atlanta (in 1996).”
But as much as he idolized Pele as a youth in Brazil, Cruz also found Pele’s literal last-minute replacement more appropriate: Vanderlei de Lima, a Brazilian marathoner who was leading the 2004 race Athens through 19 miles before a crazed Irishman in a kilt jumped onto the course and tackled him. Two runners passed him, including San Diego’s Meb Keflezighi for the silver medal, but de Lima recovered to claim the bronze.
The ceremony had already started Friday when de Lima approached Cruz backstage at the Maracana. “You have been my model, my hero, the reason why I wanted to run,” de Lima told Cruz.
Then he whispered to Cruz that he just learned he would light the cauldron.
“Pele made a choice not to be part of the Olympics,” Cruz said. “He didn’t sacrifice for the Olympics. This guy, de Lima, is so humble. He’s a symbol of everything that has to do with the Olympics. He’s not a celebrity. He’s one of us. He’s like everybody else.”
(And indeed, a few hours after he dramatically opened the Rio Games, Brazilian journalists reported bumping into de Lima at a local gas station buying beer, still wearing his ceremony uniform.)
Cruz woke up the next day ... and flew home. He has practice again today and is hosting a pre-Paralympics camp at the training center. They leave for Rio later this month. “My athletes,” he said, “have been working for this moment for years, so I need to finish off the job.”
The memories of Friday night, though, will linger.
“Not too many athletes have the chance to see the Olympic Games happen in their country,” Cruz said. “I had a very humble background. It’s almost like my whole career as an athlete is completed now. I have everything.”