Carlos Lopes was not expected to win the gold medal in 1984. He wasn't expected to medal at all. In fact, it turns out that Lopes' marathon win was only the second one he had finished in his whole career. Prior to marathons, Lopes' speciality was the 10,000 meter event.
He first appeared in the Munich Olympics in 1972, but he failed to get through the heats in the 5000-meter and 10,000-meter events. It was really until 1976 that he became an elite athelete. Something changed that year.
He started the 1976 season with an easy win at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Chepstow, Wales. At the 1976 Summer Olympics, in Montreal, Canada, Lopes set the pace from 4 km mark and the only one to follow him was defending Olympic champion Lasse Virén. Virén passed Lopes in the final 450 (one lap) to win the gold medal, with Lopes easily winning the silver medal. Lopes failed to retain his Cross-Country title by losing it in Düsseldorf (1977). He finished second.
After the superb 1976 season, Lopes slipped back into the same relative obscurity in which he had been before 1976, failing to qualify for the Moscow Olympics due to several injuries. He returned to his best, in 1982 in Oslo, when he broke the 10,000 meter (10K) European record—27:24.39—which belonged to his teammate Fernando Mamede. The next year, in Gateshead, he became cross-country world vice-champion. Lopes attempted his first marathon at the end of 1982 (New York), but he did not finish due to an accident where he crashed into a spectator. However, in his next marathon (Rotterdam) the following year, he finished a close second to Rob de Castella from Australia, losing to him by only 2 seconds. Castella won it with a European record time of 2:08:39. Lopes decided to run a 10,000 meter at the first World Championships in Helsinki, which he finished a disappointing sixth.
After that, he decided to concentrate on the marathon. 1984 was Lopes' biggest year. He regained his cross-country world title in New Jersey, in front of thousands of ecstatic Portuguese emigrants. In Stockholm, he helped Fernando Mamede win and beat the 10,000 meter world record—27 min 13.81 s—finishing second. Fate almost prevented Lopes from participating in the 1984 Olympics when, only 15 days before the Olympic marathon, Lopes was on a training run when a car hit him., he was run over by a car in Lisbon. He rolled over the hood and his elbow crashed through the windshield. Fortunately, his injuries were minor.
The Olympic marathon at Los Angeles was run in very hot and humid conditions, and as the favorites gradually fell away. In Los Angeles, Lopes turned on the pressure after mile 21, running the next 3 miles in only 14 minutes 33 seconds. He went on to win the race by 35 seconds. It was the 37 year old Lopes who led the field into the stadium to win the gold medal, with a 200 meter advantage, just 35 seconds ahead of second place. Lopes became the oldest marathoner to ever win an Olympic gold medal. Portugal erupted in celebration with its first Olympic title ever.
In 1985, Lopes became the first runner to complete a marathon in less than 2 hours and 8 minutes. In Rotterdam, he became the oldest person to set a world record in the marathon with a time of 2 hours 7 minutes 12 seconds. He also won the world cross-country championship for the third time, becoming the oldest competitor ever to win the event. He retired from professional running in 1986.
Portuguese prime minister Mário Soares, decorated Lopes with the Grand-Cross of the Order of the Infant (Grã-Cruz da Ordem do Infante D. Henrique).
His lifetime achievements include:
Olympic Games of Los Angeles (1984) –Gold Medalist in the Marathon
Olympic Games of Montreal (1976) – Silver Medalist in the 10,000 meter
World Champion 1976, 1984 and 1985; Silver Medalist in 1977 and 1983
Marathon World Record 2:07:11 in 1985
European Record in 10 000 meters 27:21:39 in 1982
Portuguese Records in 3000 meter, 5000 meter, 10 000 meters and 2 miles
9 time Portugal track champion
10 time Portugal Corta-Mato champion
3 time winner of the Euopean Cup Championship of Corta-Mato
7 time collective champion by Sporting Magazine
1,500 meters 3:41.1 in 1982
3,000 meters 7:48 in 1976
5,000 meters 13:16.38 in 1984
10,000 meters 27:17.48 in 1984
3,000 meter steeplechase 8:39.6 in 1973
Marathon 2:07.11 in 1985