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[Athletics] A Life Spent Running

Unknown Monday, December 22, 2008 , , ,
I arrive at the St. Aloysius track slightly after the 7:30 appointment that I’d been set and I find that there’s practically no one there. “Don’t worry,” I’m told, “they decided to run on the streets rather than on the track. They’ll soon be back.”

And so it is that some thirty minutes later I see a group of some twenty athletes making their way to the track headed by a middle-aged man with a long distance runner’s gait and an endless torrent of jokes that keep the rest entertained: it is Gelindo Bordin, the man I am here to meet.

“I hate running on the track,” he tells me. “It is much more enjoyable to do so in the streets. After all, if you’re going to run a marathon it is there that you will have to run it so it is better to get used to the surface.”

Bordin is a true athletics legend. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics he won one of the most exciting marathons in the history of the event after overtaking Douglas Wakiihuri of Kenya and Ahmed Salah of Djibuti with just 1,000m to go to the finishing line. It was a masterful race where Bordin stuck fast to his tactics and belief to beat those who many thought were better athletes.

Unsurprisingly that gold medal ranks as Bordin’s greatest memory along with his success in the Boston marathon in 1990. “Winning the Olympic marathon was a life-long dream,” he says. “But the Boston marathon was important because it confirmed the result that I had achieved two years earlier. There were some very good athletes in Boston and in 1989 I had missed a lot of races through injury so it was important for me to return to victory.” To this day, Bordin remains the only male athlete to have won both the Olympic and the Boston marathon.

Talking about Bordin’s Olympic memories, conversation naturally turns to the memories of the fantastic event held in Beijing.

Bordin agrees. “It was a beautiful edition,” – bellissima is the word he uses and it sounds much more appropriate - “Technically they were very good and the organization was spot on. China put a lot of effort, both financially and non, to ensure that these were a success and even though the weather wasn’t that good there were some exceptional results. It will be hard for anyone to repeat their success.” London 2012 has been warned.

In athletics, the dominant figure was that of Usain Bolt, the young Jamaican so fast that he feels the compulsion to ease off towards the finishing line to let the rest of the field get close to him. It is, finally, a positive image for a sport that far too often has had to face the spectre of doping.

Not all, however, is rosy. “As a whole, athletics has come out of these Olympic games stronger especially since it seems to be winning the battle with doping.”

“The biggest loser, however, was European athletics. Unfortunately we flopped completely on the track. It is sad and a pity since the European one remains a very important market.”

That final comment might seem like a throw-away line but instead it is very relevant for Bordin. Having retired in 1994 there was no way that he was going to return to accountancy, the profession he had left at 24 in order to take up athletics professionally. Instead, he opted to stay in athletics working with the Italian company Diadora for whom he is today the company’s marketing director.

“It is a tough job especially working in a market that is dominated by so many strong brands,” he says. “Yet I love it. I’ve always like a challenge and there’s nothing more difficult than trying to please long distance runners”

“As an Italian company, we naturally try to make comfortable shoes that look nice. It the comfort part, however, that is paramount. Our biggest battle is trying to teach people the importance of wearing good running shoes. Even if you’re simply running on a thread mill, it is important to be wearing running rather than fitness shoes.”

Talk of challenges takes us back the situation in Europe. “Engaging young people to take up sport is becoming more difficult. Talking from my personal perspective, the current situation is great because we have a lot of middle aged people coming into athletics in order to keep fit and, demographically, there isn’t a better segment to have because they have the spending power.”

“That said, it is vital to attract young people to athletics and to do so I feel that we have to change the way we talk to them. For me, athletics gave the possibility to travel and that was a great incentive but that doesn’t hold much relevance today where most kids travel abroad with their parents at least once a year.”

“So we have to work harder to communicate with them and show them the benefits. For me, athletics has allowed me to have a great life both when I was competing and afterwards when it provided me with an opportunity to work within the shoe industry. Not to mention that the gold medal has helped me a lot with the ladies as well!”

That joke breaks off the serious turn that our discussion had taken and we begin talking about the Turin marathon which Bordin ran earlier this year. “After sixteen years I decided to return to running to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Olympic gold.”

“That and also to smoothen my belly,’ he adds, jokingly, before continuing “I rediscovered the joy of running among lots of people and thoroughly enjoyed being around people for whom this sport is as much a hobby as it is a passion. There was a lot of joking going about, more at the star then towards the finishing line however.”

As for the future, he plans to run again in Seoul in order to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his gold medal. What about the Malta Marathon, I ask? “Well, in 2010 I’m going to run in Boston and after that, who knows, perhaps I could come to Malta.”

“As long as after the race we go to swim,” he adds.

I forget to mention that swimming in early March, when the marathon is traditionally held, perhaps wouldn’t be such a good idea. If that’s what it takes to get a gold medal winner to run in Malta, then so be it.
This article was published in the November 2008 issue of Sunday Circle.

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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer