Do you remember what a big deal Lance Armstrong was back-in-the-day? I'm not much of a cycling enthusiast (I don't follow it at all, actually), but I remember being at a family member's home and watching the Tour de France. Everyone was cheering for Lance, absolutely amazed at his athletic prowess and his ability to overcome cancer in such a remarkable way. But just a few years later, we learned the sad truth about the his illegal doping and chronic lying. As CNN reported, "The epic downfall of cycling's star, once an idolized icon of millions around the globe, stands out in the history of professional sports." It is such a sad story.
But...what if I told you that there was another story? One that ends with a true hero who scoffed at the title? One who never allowed the story of his heroism to be shared publicly while he was alive? Who didn't to seek to take advantage of his (legally earned) athletic prowess, but who put his life in danger many times so that others could live? (Plus, there was that one time when he helped avert a civil war in Italy...but that's a story for another time. Crazy, right!?)
This is the story of Italian cyclist Gino Bartali, who while very similar to Armstrong, was his opposite in many ways. He had his own set of flaws, but some of his actions have brilliantly outshone others.
Cycling was THE national sport of Italy in the 1930's and 40's. And Gino was one of the best. A very pious Catholic, some thought that perhaps it was his piety that helped his body win races time after time. He was such a monumental cyclist, that he won the Tour de France twice, the Giro d’Italia three times and was a four time national champion. This streak is even more remarkable when you consider that it was interrupted by World War II and Italian political maneuvering. He was the Tom Brady, the Michael Jordan, or the Michael Phelps of his day.
I have never seen a sports hero so adored. I remember times when Gino could not get out of a hotel even, such was the crush of fans waiting to see him. All the time there would be the roar of shouts which he knew so well, which was really music in his ears: ' Gi-no, Gi-no, Gi-no... ' During the Tour of Italy, Bartali always needed a box of wax balls to stop his ears when he was in bed. Without them there would have been no peace; For right through the night the row kept on, under the window of his room.
By the time WWII broke out, Gino was firmly entrenched as an athletic hero to the Italian people under Mussolini's rule. Mussolini loved him because his wins demonstrated that Italians belonged to the "master race". Because of this, he was afforded special status that he used to the Jewish underground's advantage.
When the underground first contacted Gino, they asked him to hide a friend's family in the basement of his apartment building in Florence. He agreed, and hid them for over a year until Italy was liberated in 1944. But this was only the first step.
A cyclist needs to train. He needs to travel far and wide, to get in his miles and prepare for long distance races. For the resistance, Gino made an exceptionally convenient courier. Plus, he was popular enough, that the government didn't dare harass him too much. He was known to travel as far as 400 kilometers (approx. 248 miles) for his training rides--convenient indeed!
Gino would take paper, photos and other documents to hidden printing presses so that fake documents could be forged for Jewish people in hiding. He then delivered the finished documents that enabled them to be smuggled out of Italy and into safely. The way he did this was brilliant-he rolled up the papers and carefully inserted them into the tubing of his bike frame.
Whenever he was pulled in for questioning, as he sometimes was, (the government suspected him, but was perplexed and unsure what to do about him) he would casually lean his bike up against a wall, with strict instructions that it not be touched or tampered with in anyway, as it would interfere with the delicate calibrations that would enable him to continue winning races for Italy. No one dared touch the bike. He was questioned and then released.
Thanks to the efforts of the Italian underground, which included the Catholic church, the award winning cyclist and hundreds of other unknown heros, approximately 80% of the Italian Jewish community and other refugees survived World War II. Because of his efforts, Gino was posthumously awarded the honorable title of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and education center in Jerusalem.
"When people were telling him, 'Gino, you're a hero', he would reply: 'No, no - I want to be remembered for my sporting achievements. Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I'm just a cyclist.'"
P.S. There is a movie about Gino's exploits. I haven't seen it yet, so I can't recommend it, but I'm excited to see it this weekend and see if it's good!
Family Discussion Guide
- Some people use their fame for good and others don't. Why?
- Do you think it took courage for Gino to help the resistance? If you were asked to do something similar, what would you do?
- Why didn't Gino think he was a hero? Why did he want to be remembered for his cycling?
- Do you agree or disagree with Gino that you shouldn't talk about the good things you do?
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