Feature12 Feb 2024

Baldini donates shoes from Athens 2004 Olympics to MOWA


Stefano Baldini on his way to winning the 2004 Olympic marathon title (© Getty Images)

They followed in the footsteps of Pheidippedes and Spiridon Louis on the road from Marathon to Athens, and by the time they reached the magnificent marble Panithinaiko Stadium, the runners in the 2004 Olympic men’s marathon had written another classic chapter in the history of their event.

On the hallowed route that Pheidippides ran with news of a Greek victory in the Battle of Marathon in 490BC, and on which Louis, a local farmer, won the original Olympic marathon race in 1896, Stefano Baldini emerged as the gold medal winning hero.

The 33-year-old Italian did so with the floodlights glinting off the milky marble of the horseshoe-shaped stadium – the centrepiece of the ancient and the first of the Modern Olympic Games – and off the white shoes that he has generously chosen to donate to the dazzling Heritage collection within the Museum of World Athletics (MOWA).

Back in 1896, Louis – sustained by a couple of beers before the race and by two glasses of wine and an Easter egg along the way – made what proved to be the decisive move at 37km, pulling clear of the struggling Edwin ‘Teddy’ Flack of Australia.

Flack, who had won the 800m and 1500m on the track, and finished third in the men’s tennis doubles, collapsed in a state of exhaustion. He was driven to the stadium, where he was revived by a concoction of egg and brandy administered by Prince Nicholas.

Baldini’s triumph was even more dramatic, evoking memories of the 1908 Olympic marathon.

At 35km, he was 28 seconds down on Vanderlei de Lima when the Brazilian leader was shunted from the middle of the road and into the crowd by a defrocked Irish priest.

It took de Lima a good 10 seconds to extricate himself from the crowd and, not surprisingly, even when he got back into his running the shock of the incident had drained his momentum.

In truth, the Brazilian had been running out of steam before the attack. The charging Baldini had closed some 16 seconds on him in the previous two kilometres and probably would have caught him anyway.

As it was, the Italian surged past at 39km and went on to win by 34 seconds, with US runner Meb Keflezighi coming through for silver and de Lima hanging on for bronze.

Baldini’s winning time, 2:10:55, was 12 seconds inside the Marathon to Athens course record that had been held since 1969 by Bill Adcocks of Great Britain.

“It was an unbelievable sensation crossing the line in this historic stadium,” he said. “The story of the marathon is in here in the Panathinaiko.”

The front page of La Gazzetta dello Sport hailed Baldini as the ‘Dio di Maratona’ – God of the Marathon – the next day.

Stefano Baldini in action in the 2004 Olympic marathon title

Stefano Baldini in action in the 2004 Olympic marathon title (© Getty Images)

The legacy of Pietri

“The Olympic marathon has such a big history in Italy,” the earthly farmer’s son said, referring to the hysterical reaction back home. “It is because of Dorando Pietri. Every time there is a marathon shown on television, he is mentioned.”

The story of Pietri and the 1908 Olympic marathon received an inevitable mention in the aftermath of the 2004 race in Athens.

Like the delirious, diminutive Italian confectioner with the handkerchief knotted over his head, who collapsed within sight of victory and was disqualified for being helped across the line at London’s White City Stadium, De Lima was feted as a hero in the face of his own cruel defeat.

At the closing ceremony, he was presented with the Pierre de Coubertin Medal, awarded by the International Olympic Committee for acts of exceptional sportsmanship.

The day after the 1908 marathon, Pietri was presented with a gold-plated cup by Queen Alexandra. A fund to pay for it had been launched by famed writer Arthur Conan Doyle.

The author of the Sherlock Holmes stories had been reporting on the race for The Daily Mail. “He has gone to the extreme of human endurance,” he wrote of Pietri. “It is horrible, and yet fascinating, this struggle between a set purpose and an utterly exhausted frame.”

Baldini knew all about the story of his celebrated compatriot visiting the extremes of human endurance. He was born and raised on a family dairy farm in Castlenuovo di Sotto in northern Italy, less than a marathon run away from Pietri’s home town of Carpi.

‘My Kenya’

It was largely lost outside of Italy in the wake of De Lima’s demise in Athens that Baldini’s set purpose in that battle of human endurance had been judged to perfection.

The race was held in hot and humid conditions on a challenging, undulating course, and Baldini calculated his effort with canny precision. He covered the fourth 10km section, admittedly mostly downhill, in a blistering 28:59.

“I knew I had the strength over the last four or five kilometres,” he said. “I knew I had the finish to win the race.”

In a 2021 interview with athleticsillustrated.com Baldini further reflected: “It’s a different race, a championship marathon in the summertime. There are difficult technical and tactical aspects.

“The experienced athletes are favourite in these conditions, and in 2004 I was 33 years old with 16 top marathons in my background.

“Being born and raised in the Po Valley probably helped to build my resistance in extreme conditions. It was my Kenya.

“My best quality was to close the gap on the Kenyans in hot, humid medal conditions.”

Baldini had a tough, rural background not dissimilar to those of his East African rivals. The eighth of 11 children, he was brought up on the family farm in the Reggiano region, getting up at 5am to help milk the cows before walking several miles to school.

Coaching guru Gigliotti

He started running as a nine-year-old, inspired by his older brother Marco, a 2:16 marathon runner.

Coached in his formative years by Emilio Benati, Stefano made the Italian team for the World U20 Championships in Plovdiv in 1990, placing sixth in the 5000m in 13:54.38 – 14 seconds behind the victorious Fita Bayissa, the Ethiopian who took silver over the same distance at the senior World Championships in Tokyo a year later.

Stefano Baldini in action at the 2002 London Marathon

Stefano Baldini in action at the 2002 London Marathon (© Getty Images)

Baldini graduated to the marathon after coming under the wing of Lucio Gigliotti, the guru who guided Gelindo Bordin to Italy’s first Olympic marathon gold in Seoul in 1988.

“Gigliotti did a great job in adapting his training methods to the different characteristics of his athletes,” said Baldini. “He realised that I was not Gelindo Bordin and tailored me a different suit.”

Baldini made his debut at the 42km distance in Venice in 1995, finishing sixth in 2:11:01. A year later came his big breakthrough: proof that he could take on the rest of the world and emerge victorious in the heat of a championship battle.

He won the world half marathon title in Palma de Malorca, finishing 13 seconds clear of Kenya’s Josephat Kiprono in 1:01:17. “The world half marathon title was very important for my career,” Baldini said. “It made me aware that the marathon would be my distance.”

‘I achieved all my goals’

Between 1995 and 2010, Baldini contested 27 marathons. As well as taking Olympic gold in Athens in 2004, he won the European title in Budapest in 1998 and in Gothenburg in 2006 and earned two bronze medals at the World Championships: in Edmonton in 2001 and in Paris in 2003.

Stefano Baldini wins the 2006 European marathon title

Stefano Baldini wins the 2006 European marathon title (© Getty Images)

Perhaps prompted by the spirit of Dorando Pietri, he was drawn to the streets of England’s capital city.

In nine appearances at the London Marathon, Baldini set two Italian records – 2:07:29 in 2002 and 2:07:22 in 2006. He also twice finished runner-up.

In 1997 he was beaten by two seconds by Portugal’s Antonio Pinto, reducing his PB from 2:11:01 to 2:07:57. In 2003 he lost out in a gripping five-man sprint down The Mall, clocking 2:07:56, the same time as the victorious Gezahegne Abera, the 2000 Olympic marathon champion from Ethiopia.

Still, by the time Baldini hung up his shoes in 2010, he had no regrets about his long, distinguished career as a marathon man.

“I am lucky not only because I achieved all my goals,” he said. “I also took unusual and courageous decisions which almost always turned out to be successful for me.”

Simon Turnbull for World Athletics

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