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Spinning Straw Into Gold

Raised in poverty, Joaquim Cruz of Brazil became a prince in his sport after his impressive Olympic 800

In January 1983, 19 months before winning the gold medal in the Olympic 800 meters, Joaquim Cruz was in agony. His right heel was being pinched in a cold, tightening grip. Tendon injuries gnaw equally on will and fiber. They're with you every step you take and seldom repair if you don't stop running. So if you're 19, as Cruz was, and running is your only means to an education, as it was for Cruz, you think the end of the world cannot be far away.

Cruz's pain was the culmination of a series of maddening injuries and frustrations that had occurred since September 1982, when he and his coach, Luiz de Oliveira, moved to the U.S. from Brazil. Cruz had spent the previous six months recovering from the removal of a bone spur in the same foot. He was struggling to learn English and had failed his first try at the entrance exam for the University of Oregon. The world junior record of 1:44.3 for 800 meters that he'd set in 1981 seemed so long ago, it might have been set by another person.

De Oliveira took Cruz to Dr. Stan James, the orthopedic surgeon who was one of the reasons they had been drawn to Oregon after first alighting for a few months at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. James remembers that de Oliveira was near tears with worry. Cruz was stolid. When James, who does not diagnose with caressing tenderness, ran his wide, curious fingers down the runner's calf and began to probe the sore tendon, he watched Cruz for the gasp or wince that should have come as he neared the spot. Yet Cruz's face remained impassive, and his huge brown eyes stayed fixed on the wall, unreadable.

"To see where it hurt," James says now, in some wonder, "I had to watch de Oliveira. He cared so much about this kid that it was as if Cruz's nerves registered in de Oliveira's brain."

James could discover no incapacitating lesion that would require surgery. Instead, he filled a large syringe with dilute cortisone and delicately slipped the needle through the paratenon, the thin, fibrous covering of the tendon, but not into the tendon itself. Then he injected the solution, to physically stretch the paratenon and break up the adhesions. "It was painful," says James, "though Joaquim never let on. I did the same thing to Mary Decker a few weeks before the Olympics, and she said nothing had ever hurt her more."

After the swelling subsided, four days later, Cruz was able to run without pain. He went on to regain, his form that spring and summer, win the NCAA 800 and finish third in the World Championships at Helsinki.

Then last summer he won the Olympic 800 meters so easily that silver medalist and world-record holder Sebastian Coe of Great Britain immediately announced his retirement from the event.

"That's my last major 800," Coe said to friends. "This is just no fair. I'm being mugged by a teenager." Coe, 27, was engaging in shocked hyperbole; Cruz is all of 21. But it didn't seem fair. At 6'2" and 170, with that immense stride never showing a hint of fatigue, Cruz had flown away from the field in the stretch, winning in 1:43.00, an Olympic record, breaking Alberto Juantorena's 1:43.50 set in Montreal in 1976.

Yet after all that and more—after running an 800 in Cologne in 1:41.77, a mere .04 second off Coe's 1981 world record; after mastering English and completing two years at Oregon and leading the Ducks to the NCAA title with an 800-1,500 double last June; after buying a BMW 318i and learning how to drive it—Cruz still harks back to the silent despond that preceded all these joys. And to the man who led him out of it.

"Luiz told me that no one would like me if I didn't talk," Cruz says. He is driving a friend through Eugene's winter rain. The friend smiles at the idea of no one liking Cruz. He thinks of the young Brazilian's rangy, gleaming ease on the track and his mildness away from competition, of how this combination evokes unguarded utterances of yearning from otherwise decorous young women.

Cruz doesn't realize why the friend is smiling. He thinks he isn't being believed. "I'm serious," he says. "When I was in a bad mood, I wouldn't even say good morning. Luiz said people would think I was arrogant. He made me remember when I was a boy. He said if I had met Pelé and he had refused to say anything, would I not have been disappointed? I got to be better."

It is an instructive exchange. When one comes to know Cruz, his insistence that he wasn't always such an engaging creature crops up often. He is a layered man now, with gentle manners and eloquent eyebrows and the words to express subtle distinctions and therefore the ability to shade or distract you from his earlier, harder strata. To his great credit, he never does that. His early life and nature are always there, the granite a few inches beneath mountain-meadow flowers.

Candid soul that he is, when telling how he reached Olympian heights he always speaks of de Oliveira. "I did it all for him," he says simply.

Cruz was born in 1963 in Taguatinga, Brazil, a city of 300,000 near Brasilia. His father, Joaquim Sr., had brought his wife and five children from the state of Piaui, in the north, in 1959 so that he could labor in the construction of the new capital city. Joaquim Jr., the runner-to-be, was the baby of the family.

Later, in the Brazilian press, Cruz would be called a favelado, meaning the product of a favela, what Brazilians call a classically horrid, hopeless slum. De Oliveira says Cruz's circumstances were not that destitute. Though humble, the Cruz home provided the bare necessities. "It was always clean," says de Oliveira. "It had water and sanitation. His parents worked, and cared about nutrition, so there was always food."

Of a sort. "I grew up poor," Cruz said lightly when asked one day whether fish would be all right for dinner. "That means I eat anything." The family was held together by Joaquim Sr.'s incessant work in heavy steel fabrication, for which he received the equivalent of $40 a month, and by the loving rectitude of his wife, Lydia. "My mother read the Bible every day and prayed every day," Cruz recalls. "My mother never let anybody do parties in our house." Cruz the child adopted her sober ways. "I've always been very close to my mother."

With his father, he never felt intimate. "I only started to get to know him when I was 16 or so," says Cruz. "Before that, he worked from before dawn until after we kids were in bed. He was quiet. My mother had gone to school long enough to learn how to read and write. But my father never had. He didn't ask about teachers or my schoolwork, maybe because he didn't know how."

Or because he was absorbed in the difficult task of making ends meet. "The problem," says Cruz, "was that we didn't have a house of our own. So he had to buy food and pay rent for the house, both. Sometimes my mother had to work. When I was eight, I used to shine shoes. Weekends I went to the fair with my father to sell oranges."

Eventually, after a period when all the family members were asked to scrounge meals elsewhere, Joaquim Sr. saved enough to buy a little house. Gradually, he improved it, replacing its dirt floor with one of wood.

Then Joaquim Sr. fell ill. His gallbladder was removed. "After that he was too sick to work in heavy construction," says Cruz. "He began delivering iron and steel to the construction sites with a horse cart. He was always up at 3 or 4 a.m. to care for his two horses. We had no place to keep them, and they were turned out for the night. But the government would take them if they were found on the street, so he had to get up before the horsecatcher. When I was little, I used to help him, but when I started running and training, 4:30 was too early. I worried about him. He kept looking for food even though he was sick."

Joaquim Cruz Sr. had sacrificed his health simply so his children could survive. Sensing that, his son always wanted to go beyond survival, beyond a life of subsistence. "My earliest memories are of trying to make my own toys," he says. "There was no money to buy them. Food came first and, after that, maybe shoes. But I remember finding broken toy cars and trying to fix them and wishing just once I could have a new one. But I always knew why I couldn't." He was adrift, in that precarious state where wants pulled him one way and reality another, until he felt he was going to come apart.

When Joaquim was 11, he was enrolled at SESI-D.N., a school for sports that was partly financed by the company his father worked for. Its appeal was instant and profound. "I liked it. It was nice. I had a future there."

The basketball coach was a loquacious, almost peremptorily earnest man of 24, Luiz de Oliveira, who was from Araraquara, in S√£o Paulo state. A fine soccer player, quick and agile and tough, de Oliveira, the son of a railroad engineer, had had to decide between soccer and college. He chose college. He was also smart.

De Oliveira had studied the teaching of basketball, soccer and track at the University of San Carlos, spending a year on each and excelling in courses on scientific training methods. He'd worked at the YMCA in S√£o Paulo for a couple of years before going to Brasilia.

"I always had luck," de Oliveira says. "I was invited. SESI-D.N. needed people to start programs for kids."

And so his gaze came to rest upon Joaquim Cruz. "He asked me to play basketball," says Cruz, "because I was a little bit tall and skinny. I have a picture that proves how skinny I was, but it's still hard to believe."

When Joaquim was 12, his team traveled to a basketball tournament in Cearà, in the north. "And," he says, "I'd never believed such a thing could happen—we flew on a plane. And we didn't have to pay for anything." One can imagine the wide eyes of the boy as the endless, variegated greens of the Amazon jungle passed below. Those eyes are the same today, looking out at the world with a sense of inestimable privilege.

"I got excited on that trip. After that, sometimes I'd just go run, to stay in basketball shape. I started thinking I could make my career in it."

Two years later, he entered a new school. There was a track meet coming up, and a friend who had seen Joaquim run in basketball practice started bending the track coach's ear about this guy who could win the 1,500 meters. Joaquim himself said nothing, of course, and tried to gag his friend. But the coach spoke to de Oliveira about it. "And Luiz came to me and said, 'Let's just see how fast you can do 1,500,' " recalls Cruz. After an hour of working out, he ran 4:45.

Three weeks later, in his school race, Joaquim ran 4:19, the equivalent of a 4:39 mile. "I won and thought it was over. But that qualified me for the Brazilian student championships. I told Luiz I didn't want to go."

De Oliveira would have none of this. He is an energetic, nail-biting man, and it remains his conviction that if anything is to be achieved, it must be attempted.

"He kept after me," says Cruz now, still with a tone of being unjustly hounded. "I stayed out of school to keep away from him because I didn't want to run. I didn't like it."

"If you were my son," de Oliveira said, finally cornering him, "I'd spank you. Now come on. This may not seem important to you, but it is to me. Do it for me."

Of course, we know that's exactly what he did. De Oliveira got Joaquim some spikes and trained him for two weeks on Piano Piloto, the big city track, and on dirt roads in Proflora, the eucalyptus forest park.

"He was a 14-year-old in against 18-year-olds," recalls de Oliveira. "They went out fast. He went with them. The winner ran 3:59. Joaquim died in the last lap. He was third in 4:02.3. Afterward he was vomiting and didn't want to think about track ever again."

"In basketball I had fun," says Cruz, "and I had teammates getting tired with me. Running was boring and lonely. So I decided to stop running. I told Luiz in front of my mother and father. He seemed to accept it."

The Cruz family had misgivings about Joaquim throwing himself into sports at all. "At first, I was too young to work, to bring money to the house," he says. "But when I was older, my parents complained because it took them a month of working to buy me a pair of shoes. And sometimes—the shoes were so cheap—I'd wear a pair out in a month."

He wasn't bringing anything into the house except dreams, and it was natural that parents whose lives had been spent in killing labor with little reward would object to his aspiring to more, or even aspiring to aspire.

De Oliveira got Joaquim a job teaching basketball to children. "One night after a game," Cruz recalls, "he gave me a ride home, then stopped the car and made a speech. He knew what I cared about most. He said that he had told people in the U.S. about a kid in Brazil that they'd hear about someday. I could be that kid if I'd try, but it was going to have to be in track. He said, 'Just give it one month. If you don't like it, we'll forget about it after that.' I said. 'O.K. One month.' "

A friend of de Oliveira's who ran a little market came up with a box of vegetables every week. De Oliveira passed them on to Cruz's mother to supplement the family's meals. And a month later Joaquim, at 15, ran 800 meters in 1:54 and 400 meters in 48.7. He was a prodigy.

De Oliveira's confidence was shaken. "Suddenly it hit me that what I knew about coaching wasn't enough," he says. "He needed more than that. I had to improve my knowledge about middle distance running."

But the foundation on which he built was there from the beginning: "An athlete needs a program. Not just the right exercises after school, but a coordinated way of life that has rest and diet and study and family and friends all in proportion, as well as fundamental values like mutual respect and keeping your promises."

"Luiz didn't say to me, 'You have talent,' " says Joaquim. "Maybe he knew, but he only told me I could get a lot of things running. I could get out of the country and learn English. I really wanted to see the world. But I was very shy."

So shy that Joaquim himself knew he could never get where he wanted to go by himself. "I believed in anybody who wanted to treat me well, who wanted the best for me," he says. "I believed in Luiz because he bought me shoes and food and vitamins. He cared about me."

De Oliveira was bound as strongly by his prescribed way of life as were his charges. "My athletes and I agree. We are a team. We make commitments to each other, coach to athlete, and the other way around, too," he says.

Cruz and de Oliveira formed a remarkable symbiosis. De Oliveira prepared him in stages, laying a base of general fitness and strength and flexibility, then adding intensity and speed, to peak for a single season a year. "I complained a lot," says Cruz, "but looking back, comparing it with what we do today, it was easy. And we got good results, even though I was just beginning and didn't know much. For one thing, my legs used to really hurt after races, until I discovered the victory lap."

When he was 17, in 1980, Joaquim ran 800 meters in 1:47.85, 1,500 in 3:47.3. He watched Coe win the Olympic 1,500 on TV and vowed to be like him.

"My father wasn't well, and I asked him to stop working and take my mother to the north and rest," he says. "I was getting some money from the government and the club. My sisters and I could have survived. But he didn't listen."

Joaquim Sr. did take the chance to see his son run. "He liked it," says Cruz. "He did something amazing, something that he had never done before. He invited me for ice cream."

Cruz savors every memory of his father, who died in 1981 of a heart attack at the age of 50. "He was shorter than I am, shorter even than Luiz, who is 5'8". But he was strong. He didn't say much after watching me run. Only that when he was young, he ran on the farm, chasing the cows."

A few months after his father's death, Joaquim ran an 800 in Rio.

"I have had two big emotional occasions in my life," says de Oliveira. "One, of course, was his gold medal. The other was his race in Rio. I asked him to run the first 400 in 53. He did 52.1 thought, 'He'll never make it.' Then the 600 was 1:18. He hadn't slowed at all. I thought, 'He can't handle that pace.' But he kept right on. He ran 1:44.3, at age 18, a world junior record."

In the evening, when everyone had calmed down, de Oliveira told Joaquim it was time to leave Brazil.

In one race, the youngster had outgrown his pond. De Oliveira found this hard to explain to Brazilian officials. "The government sports department gave him $300 a year," says de Oliveira. "And after he ran his 1:47, when he was 17, I went to Mr. Helio Babo of the Brazilian Federation to ask for some gas money to take athletes to Piano Piloto for training. He said, 'Joaquim Cruz can be a good athlete. Not like Joao Carlos de Oliveira [the triple jumper, unrelated to Luiz] who went to Moscow the world-record holder and only got bronze.' So you see the kind of guy he is, Helio Babo. He is possessive. He is insatiable."

Babo flatly opposed Joaquim's leaving Brazil. When de Oliveira revealed plans for both runner and coach to go to Brigham Young, where de Oliveira planned to work toward a master's degree, Babo said it would be the end of Joaquim. "He said it would destroy his career, and I would be responsible for everything. This was all published in the newspapers. It was a bad time."

De Oliveira sold his car and furniture to pay for his first semester's tuition and his family's tickets to Provo. Agberto Guimaraes, the 1980 Olympic 800 finalist who now is coached by de Oliveira, had attended BYU and made the arrangements. But when Cruz arrived, he was already injured. He had been born with his right leg shorter than his left. "I always thought he'd have back problems because of it," says de Oliveira. "But he had foot problems instead."

Too, he found it hard to train in the snowy Utah Rockies. "I kind of think of Provo now as Shangri-la," says Cruz, grinning. "No one there seemed to talk about the outside world."

"The people were wonderful to us," says de Oliveira, "but we decided to study other places." Nike representative Geoff Hollister recommended that James look at Cruz's foot in Eugene, and while doing that, they in turn looked at Eugene. "It was rainy, but you could be out in it and train," says de Oliveira.

Three months later they moved to Eugene, and Cruz started studying for the English test he needed to pass to get into the university. His foot surgery was done not by James but by Dr. Don Baxter of Houston, in July 1982. The next six months were the lowest of Cruz's life. And of de Oliveira's, who knew he had no future in Brazil if Cruz didn't recover.

Cruz failed the Oregon admissions test three times, yet he never was tempted to give up and go home. "Luiz asked me if I wanted to go back," says Cruz. "I said, 'No, you go if you want. I'm going to stay. I'm still alive.' I would have stayed 10 years if that's what it took. I never give up goals. Learning English and getting into school were my goals. If I had given up on them and gone back...I don't know what would have happened."

That's because he made it. His heel came around. James suggested to Nike that the company concoct a special built-up shoe for his right foot: He passed his English test.

Cruz put on the green and yellow of Oregon, becoming the most spectacular walk-on there since Otis Davis, also a converted basketball player, won the 1960 Olympic 400 meters. When it came to the question of who would guide Cruz, Oregon coach Bill Dellinger, the Olympic bronze medalist at 5,000 meters in 1964, insisted on no pride of place. "Hey," says Dellinger, "it was unique. We didn't choose him. He and Luiz chose Oregon. There's no way I'm going to say, 'Well, you can come but you have to be coached by me.' " Though he is still very much in school, Cruz has decided not to run for the Oregon team next season. His training schedule is geared for a late summer peak, and NCAA rules don't allow him to have a shoe contract, which is what he needs to move his mother and sisters into a better house in Brasilia and get treatment for a 5-year-old nephew who is deaf. Faced with this, Dellinger was equally understanding: "People wail to me that we only had him for two years, but I say this man did more in two years here than anyone else in a lifetime."

Cruz's training in 1983 was designed simply to return him to full strength. Still, he won the NCAA 800 in 1:44.91.

"I took 45 days to rest, and to think, too," he says. "It was time to take something seriously, to be somebody. And I knew that, but when I thought of it, I was afraid. I worried about celebrity and the press, about being used. I weighed it all. And just before I started working out. I swore to myself, 'O.K., this is what I want and am going to get.' Then I worked very carefully not to get hurt. When you want something in the way I did, nothing will put you off. I had bad days, when I was crying as I did my workouts, but I kept in my mind what it was for. I learned that track isn't hard. Training is hard."

In the fall, de Oliveira had him begin with two-hour sessions of constant running interspersed with jumping and gymnastics. In the winter he did long-distance runs, weightlifting, mountain running, intervals, fartlek, uphills, speed drills, tempo runs and circuit training (a series of exercises done at stations beside a trail, sprinting from one station to the next, which Cruz associates with nausea).

De Oliveira has advanced the state of his art by looking hard at the essence of middle-distance running: An athlete burns more oxygen during a race than he can take in. He has devised some fiendish ways to "defend against oxygen debt," as he puts it. The most dramatic and dizzying is training by holding your breath.

"When you do 1:14 pace for 600 meters and you have 200 to run," he says, addressing maybe three people on the planet, because that is 1:39 pace for the 800, "You are going to be in lactic acid distress. This gets you so you don't feel destroyed by it." Cruz holds his breath for distances up to 75 meters in his circuits, and runs 300-meter intervals (in 40 seconds each) without breathing for the last 40 meters.

Cruz arrived at the Olympics in the best shape of his life. The 800 field was one of the most powerful and complete of the Games, unaffected by the boycott. Yet Cruz won his heat and quarterfinal in the extravagant times of 1:45.66 and 1:44.84. In the semifinal, Edwin Koech of Kenya tore ahead and passed the 400 in a flaming 49.6. "I heard '49' and thought. 'A lot of people are going to die here,' " said Cruz. " 'In the last 100 I'll have more left.' "

He did and rolled past Koech to win in 1:43.82, his best ever. Behind him, defending champion Steve Ovett of Great Britain had to dive across the line just to qualify in fourth, in 1:44.81.

Coe, who had won his semifinal in a far less taxing 1:45.51, had watched Cruz's gaudy run. "He's either in supreme physical condition or just a little foolhardy," he said. "If he's both, we'd better all watch out tomorrow."

Cruz was far from foolhardy. In the final he again followed the pace of Koech past the 400, but in a more modest 51.1. Cruz took the lead for good at the top of the last turn, with about 100 meters to go. By the finish he was five yards clear of the straining Coe, with Earl Jones, of the U.S., third. "Thank god it's over," was his first thought.

He took a victory lap that concluded with a long embrace of de Oliveira, and was presented with the only Olympic gold medal ever won by a Brazilian runner. With the victory he now had a chance to become the first to win the 800-1,500 double since New Zealand's Peter Snell in 1964.

Three days later, looking fine, he won his first heat of the 1,500 in 3:41.01, beating Steve Scott of the U.S. But the day after that, he scratched from the semifinal. He had caught a bad cold from a roommate after the 800. Medication had not helped. Coe went on to win the 1,500 final in an Olympic record 3:32.53, becoming the first man ever to repeat as 1,500-meter champion.

Cruz's countrymen didn't care. One gold medal was enough. A baby found abandoned in a basket in S√£o Paulo was at once given the name Joaquim Cruz. But the Brazilian officials who had said Cruz was doomed if he left the country didn't take kindly to his showing them to be so magnificently wrong. They sputtered that he had disgraced their nation by not running the 1,500. They made him out to be a conspirator. "It appears that a mercenary like Luiz Alberto de Oliveira," said Babo in Rio, "wants to make the athlete into only a commercial vehicle. He was afraid that if the athlete didn't finish first because of his cold, Cruz would lose the value of the gold medal already won. This would diminish the share of exhibition dollars he'd make abroad [on the European track circuit]. The coach prevented the athlete from fighting for one more medal for Brazil, which I find sad and shameful."

The charge showed not only stunning spitefulness but also how out of touch Babo was. Had coach and runner really based their actions strictly on Cruz's financial interest, he would have run the 1,500. The nature of shoe contracts is that a gold medal brings a bonus, but a second gold brings a far larger one. A real mercenary would have risked his health and the whole European tour for that 1,500 win. Too, a real mercenary's coach would have had a deal with his athlete which gave him a cut of the winnings. De Oliveira has never taken a penny to coach, counsel or represent Cruz or any of his other athletes. Since January 1984 he's been paid by Nike to coach. The decision not to run the 1,500 semi had been made by Cruz after four days of illness and little sleep. The two men met at noon before the semifinal. Cruz was a wreck, but de Oliveira had urged him to at least try the semifinal.

"I know I could get into the final," Cruz had said. "But think of tomorrow. There'd be more expectation, I'd be just as sick or worse, and I'd be taking someone else's place."

"That's it," said de Oliveira. "I'm not going to force you." These two men so astronomically lucky even to find each other, let alone take each other so far, decided they wouldn't allow what they had done to be stained by those who didn't or wouldn't understand. "Sport isn't war," de Oliveira would say later. "You don't have to die for your country. Sport is about being well and doing your best."

Cruz is indeed well, having resumed his drills, which de Oliveira still directs. "You see, I was serious about doing it all for him," Cruz pants, as the coach calls the cadence. "And there is more to do."

That means he has set his new goals. Achilles willing, it won't be long before world-record holders Coe (3:47.33 for the mile, 1:41.73 for the 800) and Ovett (3:30.77 for the 1,500) are the ones holding their breath.



Shifting into overdrive, Cruz powered past Koech on the final turn and held off Coe (359) and Jones (904) to win the 800 gold.



Having surmounted the language barrier and his shy ways, Cruz feels at home in Eugene.



This year he's concentrating on his studies, but Cruz finds time for friend Mary Ellingson.



During a recent flight from Brasilia to S√£o Paulo, the pilot honored his nation's Olympic hero by putting the plane on Cruz control.



Relegated to passenger status, Cruz gags it up with de Oliveira and a pair of pals.



Wherever Cruz shows his face in Brazil, as here in S√£o Paulo, he's besieged by adoring fans.



These days, Cruz's periodic visits with his mother (center) draw sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews and the ever-present de Oliveira.