Carlo Airoldi
Carlo Airoldi

He wasn’t high born. He was a farmer from Origgio, Italy. And he could run, and run, and run – Forrest Gump-style. In the 1890’s, Carlo Airoldi was one of the best long-distance runners in Europe. In 1895, the year before the inaugural Olympics in Athens, Airoldi won the Milano-Barcelona footrace, a 12-leg competition of 1,050 kilometers!

So when Airoldi heard about the Athens Olympics, he likely thought a 42-kilometer marathon would not be a problem at all. Unfortunately, there was another problem. He was not a man of means like the majority of athletes attending the Athens Olympics. He could not afford to take trains or ships from Italy to Greece.

So he decided to walk. Two thousand kilometers. So that he could run 42.

He convinced an Italian magazine, La Bicicletta, to sponsor his expenses in exchange for his story. He figured if he walked and jogged some 70 kilometers a day, he could make it to Athens in a month. So, according to this article in Italian, he departed Milan on February 28, 1896, taking his first steps in the cold and windy winter weather. The book, The Olympics: A Very Peculiar History, explains that after making it 700 kilometers to Ragusa, Yugosloavia, Airoldi bought a ticket for a boat to Pattras in Western Greece, before walking another 200 kilometers to Athens.

It took Airoldi a little over a month, but he made it!

Carlo-Airoldi--il-librodi-manuel-sgarella
Not quite the build you’d expect of a marathon runner….

Airoldi arrived in the Greek capital in early April, just in time for the start of the Olympic Games. Unfortunately for him, these weren’t the Games of the ancient Greeks. These were the Games of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who believed in the purity of amateur athletics, that only those who were not tainted by victory prizes were allowed to compete.

When asked by members of the organizing committee whether he have ever received money in a competition, Airoldi replied sincerely that he indeed had, the previous year, after winning the Milan-Barcelona race a year before. Perhaps, as the Italian article explains, there was also concern that this renown distance runner from Italy was a threat to the favored Greeks in the marathon. Whatever the reason, a shocked Airoldi was declined eligibility to run in the marathon.

“If only they could walk a mile in my shoes…,” he may have thought.

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bill bradley
Bill Bradley

Bill Bradley has the kind of career that makes me sigh:

  • Gold medalist on the USA basketball team at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics
  • College Player of the Year at Princeton in 1965
  • Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in 1965
  • NBA championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973
  • Induction into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1983
  • Elected to the US Senate in 1977
  • US presidential candidate in 2000

While in office as a US Senator in 1986, Bradley sent the editors of the book, Tales of Gold, documents that explain Bradley’s views on the Olympics at the time. Here is a summary of Bradley’s thoughts:

bill bradley olympian card 2End the Requirement of Amateurism: Bradley felt that the international playing field was not level, and that if athletes and National Olympic committees were truly trying to maintain amateur status, then certain capable, but financially weak athletes would struggle to train and compete, if not drop out all together. “First we need to have one uniform standard of eligibility, making skill the only criterion for competition and abandoning the ridiculous notion of amateurism in a world of differing social and economic systems,” Bradley wrote. “The traditional amateurism of an Avery Brundage eliminated the lower and middle classes of capitalist countries from competition. Without some form of subsidy they could not afford to compete against wealthier athletes. Since compensation for athletic services violated Olympic rules, officials often found less obvious ways to reward poorer participants. As a result, many athletes had to be dishonest about their compensation. It is time for the hypocrisy to cease and the rules to be modified by allowing open competition.”

Eliminating Team Sports from the Olympics: This I found intriguing. Bradley wrote, “I think we need to abandon team sports in the Olympics because they too easily simulate war games. One has only to look at the Hungarian-Soviet water polo game in 1956, or the Czech-Soviet ice hockey match in 1968, or any time the Indians and the Pakistanis play field hockey, to recognize that these contests go well beyond friendly competition.”

What I found confusing was Bradley’s next statement about the time he received his gold medal at the 1964 Olympics. “We should continue to recognize individual achievements. I will never forget that moment standing on the platform after beating the Soviets in the finals, watching the flag being raised and listening to the national anthem being played. It gave enduring meaning to the years of personal sacrifice.” After all, Bradley would not have received his gold medal for basketball if there were no team sports. And as I have written, the biggest factor for the US basketball team’s success was the coach’s ability to drill a powerful team concept into the minds of the players.

bill bradley olympian card

The Olympics – Not Just About Sports: Bradley was channeling the founder of the modern Olympic movement, Pierre de Coubertin, with this idea. de Coubertin actually had non-sport competitions in the categories of architecture, literature, music, painting and sculpture in the Olympics from 1912 to 1948. Wrote Bradley, “We also need to champion individuals other than just the fastest, strongest, and the most agile among us. Why not extend the Olympics to two months and also recognize creative, intellectual, and artistic ability? A film festival, poetry readings, concerts, cultural shows, and athletic events might even run simultaneously at an expanded Olympics. The whole person should be the theme of the festival. The emphasis would not be on the rewards to be taken home but on the experience of living for two months in a microcosm of the world.”

A Permanent Home for the Olympics – Greece: Bradley provided these words in 1986, in a decade where the 1980 and 1984 Olympics were heavily boycotted along Cold War lines. He wrote, “The Games should be permanently located in their ancient birthplace, the country of Greece. This permanent home would come to be identified with the Olympics as an institution, and the Games would no longer be identified with the nationalistic displays of temporary hosts. The way it now is, too often the host country attempts to produce a gigantic display of nationalism. This also encourages a situation where the Olympics infringe on the domestic politics of the host country, as happened in Mexico City and Montreal. If the Games had had a permanent home in a neutral country, it is probable that neither the United States in 1980 nor the Soviets in 1984 would have withdrawn from the Games.”