Emerging from the chaos at the start of the Olympic marathon, Polin Belisle of Burbank sprinted to the front of the pack, running shoulder to shoulder with some of the world's best distance runners for nearly a mile.
An improbable achievement for Belisle, it all seemed too good to be true.
Belisle was not supposed to be in the marathon. He wasn't even supposed to be in the Olympics. Eleven days before the race, he had been dismissed from the Honduran team and ejected from the Olympic village.
But that didn't stop him. He crashed the start of perhaps the most revered event in the Olympics.
"I gave the order on July 29 to kick him off our team," said Julio Villalta Sr., president of the Honduran Olympic Committee. "He did not have permission to run in the (Aug. 9) marathon. I do not know how this could have happened."
Crash the Olympics? Experts believe it had never been done in the post-World War II era, making Belisle's unauthorized caper "an absolutely unique happening," said John Lucas, a professor of sports history at Penn State and author of five books on the Olympics.
Belisle's brief appearance in the race--videotape shows him quickly fading after a mile, then evidently vanishing from the course a few miles later--probably will earn him a place in the Olympic Hall of Shame, and he isn't saying how or why he did it. Approached in front of his Burbank apartment complex two weeks after the marathon, Belisle, 26, would say only "no comment."
Villalta called Belisle "irresponsible and dishonest," but also chastised himself for "not having checked him out more thoroughly."
At one time, Villalta--who didn't know Belisle had run in the marathon until a reporter told him--considered Belisle a godsend.
Belisle had contacted Villalta by phone last spring, asking to represent Honduras in the Olympics. He told Villalta he had been born in Honduras, had moved to the United States when he was 6 and had lived here ever since on a green card..
He also told Villalta about his 11th-place finish in this year's Los Angeles Marathon, his time of 2 hours 18 minutes 38 seconds making him faster than any marathon runner Honduras had.
According to Villalta, Belisle even offered to pay his own travel expenses to Barcelona, saying that he was sponsored by major shoe companies.
Asking him for documentation, Villalta received a copy of Belisle's birth certificate, showing he had been born in Puerto Cortez, Honduras, and a newspaper tear sheet from the day after the L.A. Marathon showing Belisle's impressive result. Villalta did verify the birth certificate, but did not confirm Belisle's running credentials.
Had he investigated, he would have discovered the phoniness of the long-distance runner. Belisle had neglected to mention a few key facts in his biography:
--His ultimate disqualification from this year's L.A. Marathon for alleged cheating--his number wasn't seen at checkpoints.
--The years he spent growing up in Belize, a small Central American nation northwest of Honduras.
--His dual citizenship. He's an American citizen, having been naturalized in January of 1989, and also a citizen of Belize.
Belisle also withheld another fact: He had run for Belize in the 1988 Olympic marathon.
Had Villalta known any of that, he says now, Belisle would not have stood a chance of representing Honduras. But on July 15, after having Belisle sign an oath of loyalty to Honduras, Villalta added him to the team, only 10 days before the start of the Olympics.
Belisle arrived in Barcelona on July 18, using airline tickets bought with money he has acknowledged borrowing from his mother. He also borrowed her maiden name. Appearing in the Olympic computer as "Apolineria Belisle Gomez," he was entered in three events: the 5,000 meters, the 10,000 and the marathon.
A few days into the Games, Belisle's name was spotted by track athletes from Belize as they were scanning a computer screen to see who was running in various races. They went to Ned Pitts, president of the Belizean Olympic Committee, and asked him, "Isn't that our Polin Belisle?"
On July 29, Pitts told Villalta that Belisle had represented Belize in Seoul. Although it's not against Olympic rules for an athlete to change countries, Villalta, feeling deceived and "very, very angry," immediately kicked Belisle off the Honduran team, notifying both Belisle and the Olympic Organizing Committee, he says.
Although Belisle was banished from the Olympic village, Honduran officials let him keep his photo ID and race number as "souvenirs," said Villalta, who had assumed that Belisle's credentials would be invalidated by the organizing committee.
And when Belisle didn't show up for either the 5K or 10K runs, the Honduran delegation "thought the issue was finished," said Daniel Matamoros, secretary general of the Honduran Olympic Committee. "We figured he was in Barcelona somewhere, staying as a tourist."
But Belisle evidently was able to stay on in the village. Belizean officials reported seeing him.
Even with valid credentials, Belisle should not have been able to get into the marathon. Olympic rules required that athletes be confirmed by a team coach or official by noon the day before events they were competing in.
"We did not confirm Belisle," Villalta said.
But somebody did. Belisle's name appears on the marathon confirmation list as one of the 112 runners entered. It is no longer possible to check his confirmation form--and see who signed it--because all the paperwork from the marathon has been thrown away, according to Luis Saladie, an organizing committee official who helped run the race.
Villalta speculates that Belisle "must have confirmed himself."
But athletes, supposedly, were not allowed to do that. At the information centers, credentials were supposed to have been checked against the signature on the confirmation form. And athletes' IDs were a different color from those of coaches and officials.
"I'm not so sure how watertight the confirmation system was," said Mike Gee, technical director of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which ran track and field competition at the Olympics. "It may have been possible for an athlete to confirm himself."
Although there is no formal procedure for dismissing an athlete from an Olympic team, various officials connected with the Games said that Honduras was not diligent enough in dealing with Belisle or communicating with the organizing committee.
Acknowledging that he erred in letting Belisle keep the credentials, Villalta says Honduras did everything else properly, blaming the organizing committee for Belisle's violation of the Olympic spirit.
The 26.2-mile marathon, the last event of the Games, was held on a Sunday. It began north of Barcelona in the city of Mataro. Security in the staging area was not as tight as at other Olympic venues. A scanner wasn't there to check bar codes on IDs, "and only visual controls were used," Saladie said.
When a runner arrived at the staging area, his photo ID admitted him to a checkpoint where his credentials and number were matched against a master list of confirmed runners. Leaving that room, the runner went directly onto a cordoned-off path leading to the starting line, which was on a main road.
Standing prominently in the first row of the starting line, Belisle was able to get his picture in a Barcelona newspaper and could be seen clearly on TV at the start of NBC's marathon coverage. Wearing dark blue shorts and singlet, Belisle was No. 907, the marathon man without a country.
"He really made history," Pitts said sardonically.
Belizean Olympic officials had their own reasons for wanting Belisle out of the Olympics: They believed that he wasn't qualified to be an Olympian. He had made the 1988 Belizean team solely on the basis of his certified 20th-place finish in that year's Long Beach Marathon, but his subsequent history of disqualifications--his fifth-place finish in the 1991 Long Beach Marathon was voided because he didn't appear in the race videos--have made all his results suspect.
Belizean officials regard his last-place finish in Seoul, in a time of 3:14:02, a true indication of his ability.
"He never, ever should have been in any Olympics," said Joan Burrell, president of the Belizean Amateur Athletic Assn.
Belizean officials are also angry with Belisle for making what they describe as harassing phone calls in the months before this summer's Games, allegedly pleading with them to put him on their team. His seemingly desperate need to get into the Olympics, they say, is driven by both ego and greed.
For more than a year, according to several sources, Belisle, a 1984 graduate of Burbank High and a mediocre prep runner, has been taking money from sponsors--not major shoe companies but acquaintances in the Los Angeles area. Falsely claiming to be a member of the '92 Belize team, he was able to persuade a Grammy Award-winning jazz musician to give him a reported $3,000 for his alleged Olympic campaign.
When the musician learned last July that he was being duped, he disassociated himself from Belisle. Shortly after the marathon, he and his wife received a letter from Barcelona. Sent to their Beverly Hills home by Belisle, it contained the Barcelona newspaper photo of the starting line. Belisle had drawn an arrow to himself and written, "I ran in the Olympics." He's also in the official results, listed as "started but did not finish."
"Now he can come back and say, 'See, I told you I'd run,' " the musician's wife said. "It's like he has the proof to redeem himself."
But Belisle will need more than a photo to get back in Villalta's good graces.
"He will never run for our country again," Villalta said. "We have learned from this experience. And I hope we never repeat it."