With the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in full swing, marathon great Gelindo Bordin, of Italy, shares memories of his pulsating win at the 1988 Seoul Games and his views on the difficulties and challenges facing long-distance running.
One of my earliest recollections of the Olympics is that of the indomitable Italian runner Gelindo Bordin storming clear of the fading Ahmed Salah, of Djibouti, and Kenyan Douglas Wakiihuri with two kilometres remaining to win the marathon at the 1988 Games in two hours 10 minutes and 32 seconds.
I was in my early teens back then and those images of Bordin, sporting an all-white outfit and confidently striding into the stadium as the euphoric RAI commentator purred with delight, have stayed with me after all these years.
And memories came rushing back recently when, 28 years on from his feat in South Korea, Bordin, in Malta as guest of TeamSport, relived those extraordinary moments which earned him iconic status in the history of the Olympics.
You come from a country which is obsessed with football but you chose a career in athletics. What made you fall in love with this sport?
Athletics, like all individual sports, has something particular... and now there are a lot of people who are understanding this. It is the kind of emotion that you live by yourself. Sure, even when things are not going well, you are on your own as well to cope with it but in case of victory or a big result, it is something that you really feel.
Running, as any other individual sport, never leaves you on the bench.
Sometimes that happens in team sport and that’s why I switched from football to athletics... I was a goalkeeper with a local club in Vicenza.
When I was told that you were visiting Malta, it instantly revived memories of the commentary on RAI of the Seoul Olympics, namely the last few kilometres of the marathon race. Can you tell us what went through your mind in those moments?
For all the Italians at that time, it was a massive event because the London Olympics (1908), when Dorando Pietri missed out on the gold medal after stumbling with 200 metres to the finish line, were in their memory. And 80 years later, an Italian was coming back to win the race, so I think it was exciting for everybody.
We had spent the last night (in Seoul) together, before the event, in the restaurants, so everyone was involved. It was the last race of the Olympics and therefore it was a big event for my country.
Also, the race was a great contest because it was a big fight until the end. There was one Japanese, (Takeyuki) Nakayama, myself and a couple of Africans, Douglas Wakiihuri, from Kenya, and Ahmed Salah from Djibouti... the entire world was watching in those last four kilometres. It was so exciting for everybody to see us fight it out until the very last kilometre but finally, and luckily enough, I won the gold medal.
Was your victory down to mental strength?
Yes, it was and it was also a tactical race because Salah was the slower (athlete) in the last 200 metres and he tried to move (clear) with four kilometres to go but it was too early. He moved very fast, he ran 2.51 minutes and that kilometre was a little bit uphill. Wakiihuri tried to give chase... so I let them go but came back with two kilometres left and won the race.
It was a tactical battle but also mental because it was not easy to decide what to do at that point. It was easier to try and follow them but I used my energy in the correct way.
A lot of athletes in any sport struggle with retirement but you headed straight into work as consultant for sports firm Diadora...
I was unlucky because I stopped running after breaking the meniscus. I had a problem with my knee and I was still 33. I changed my position in the sports totally, going from the field to the desk.
So I started investing in myself and all the experiences I had in the sport and the opportunities which being an Olympic champion gave me. I started doing this kind of business and supporting an Italian company, Diadora, in trying to become an international brand.
Now we are doing very well, we are growing but we are still in a position where we need to really be an Italian brand at a global level. That’s where we want to go. The last five years have been great but the finish line is far away from our goal.
In an interview you did a few years back, you said that to entice more youngsters to athletics, Italy has to follow swimming’s example by promoting the sport as young and dynamic. Have you seen any progress?
In Italy, unfortunately, we still have a situation where successes happen by chance.
As a former athlete, very often I’m affronted by the thought that, in the minds of the people there is a conviction that every strong athlete is doped, because this is the reality
At present, we have good high jumpers who have great possibilities for Rio and valid marathon runners but we still lack a structure that provides a sound base for athletics.
Italy is a country that has always produced great talents, in the 10,000m, hurdles, the sprint with the late Pietro Mennea and high jump with Sara Simeoni.
But, like most European countries, we have lost the connection with sports, athletics, at a high level. France is, on the other hand, showing that, having implemented important policies with the youths, is rediscovering success and returning to having sprinters who go under 10 seconds and hurdles runners who are doing well at international level, even against the Africans.
Unfortunately, we are still anchored to a sport, as I said five or six years ago, which is outdated... an old way of communicating and approaching youths, based only on the message of sweat, effort and sacrifice.
We don’t work at school level. Therefore, there is still a lot to be done.
Have you come across a marathon runner that reminds you of yourself?
There is a young lad who I have signed up for Diadora – Daniele Meucci.
He is an athlete of great talent – I hope he doesn’t read this interview but I have to tell the truth – he can become a marathon runner of an international stature.
Meucci has immense quality, he runs 7:40 minutes in the 3,000m and is therefore a very fast marathoner. He can compete at the World, Europeans or Olympics.
The problem I think he’s still got is that he has set his bar, his objectives, low.
He is daunted by the Africans, he has this mental barrier. I will talk to him after Rio because he has immense potential.
In Europe, there have been many promising runners but the only problem I’ve seen in the last few years is that, since not all the continents are represented because we are seeing only Africa challenging, this distance now belongs to the world because a lot of amateur runners are doing it.
The marathon has become a people’s sport, which is very nice because it’s culture, but there is less affection for the great champions.
This year, I was in New York, accompanying my partner who ran the marathon together with a group of friends. I made my way to the finish line in Central Park and saw more spectators after the first 1,000 athletes had completed the race than there had been for the leading athletes.
I was sad because when the first runners approached the finish line, the crowd was sparse. There were some at the finish line but Central Park was half-empty. The people no longer feel represented and because of this, we are losing the affection for the champions.
Why do you think Europe, even the US and Russia, are finding it difficult to keep the pace with the Africans in the marathon?
All... Russia, Northern Europe and Australia, with (former world marathon champion Rob) De Castella. It’s all about the approach to the sport. Unfortunately, we are not realising, or rather we’ve realised but don’t have the will to invest, that man evolves, in the good and bad.
In underdeveloped countries, the marathon, athletics and other inexpensive sports, are still widely practised and therefore the children evolve in that sector.
We have made our children evolve in front of a computer and the PlayStation – we are the world champions in this. We have children who, at two years of age, make phone calls or know how to switch on a computer but are incapable of moving, and this is our main problem.
Our children are losing their motor skills... they have carried out a study which produced some impressive findings.
In the last two decades, a 10-year old child has lost around 80 per cent of the ability to move in a natural way compared with children in the same age-bracket 10 or 20 years ago.
This can also be seen in football. Where are the Baggios, the great talents Italy has always had?
We are losing the capacity to be natural and we therefore need to start working with the youths, making them move from a young age, not keeping them sat on a chair.
It’s all there... man adapts. At a certain point, there will be a return.
This has already happened in the United States where there has been a re-awakening but we need to make sure that the situation changes because otherwise we are destined to become good only in certain sport, like swimming, which I’ve mentioned earlier, because pools are the natural place where parents leave their children at a young age in Italy.
Athletics is passing through a turbulent period after the doping scandals in Russia and in some African countries like Kenya. Do you think the image of sport has suffered irreparable damage?
This is a very tough battle for sport in general. As a former athlete, very often I’m affronted by the thought that, in the minds of the people there is a conviction that every strong athlete is doped, because this is the reality.
When you talk to people, no-one is convinced that you can be an athlete of a great level in a clean manner, and this is extremely sad because it’s not true.
But, we say it in words and the facts, the way we communicate certain situations leaves much to be desired.
You can’t ignore what’s happening in our sport... even Kenya is involved, an enormous scandal.
You are less enamoured with the great champions because there are lingering suspicions. People say ‘if they’re doing it, then I might as well do like them’.
And this is a very difficult scenario sport must face in a robust manner. Sure, it would take more than one day to restore faith because I perceive a diminished attachment from the public.
I see it in my work. The testimonial, which used to be an important vehicle to promote the product, has lost its appeal. The people no longer identify themselves with the great champions, except football where children still have idols because it’s a global sport.
But in other sports, the testimonial has little value because there is no faith.
This is not your first visit to Malta and you look very at ease here...
Malta was a very nice discovery for me. It’s a wonderful island.
The people know each other well and it’s perhaps one of those places where you can undertake certain initiatives which can also become a point-of-reference for the rest of the world because, in bigger countries, it’s difficult to implement them.
Malta is perhaps one of those places – I travelled here to conduct some clinics and there is this ease of communicating with the entire nation – where examples of excellence can flourish, changing the approach to daily life.
There is always an emphasis on business, survival and the need to work, things like that, but also returning to dedicate moments of the day to ourselves to achieve better health and physical well-being.
When I arrive in Malta, I get this nice sensation here I say to myself... I’m in a country, a nation but I can reach out to everyone’.
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