The politics of the personal

Periodically, one hears the refrain that sports and politics should be kept separate. Such calls are often made when the participation in or holding of certain sporting events is controversial – not for sporting but for political reasons.

One might fairly trace this debate in modern times back to the 1936 Olympics to be held in Berlin. The US considered a boycott, due to concerns over Hitler’s racist policies, but the boycott was opposed by US sports official Avery Brundage, later the IOC president, who was adamant that political differences should not affect the Olympic ideal (“fine athletics and fine art”).

Brundage was later criticised for his pro-Nazi views but this did not prevent his acension in the IOC. His views of politics and sport would later surface when he strongly opposed the exclusion of Rhodesia from the 1972 Olympics, conflating it with the terrorist attack in Munich that year and arguing that after the hostage taking that: “The Games must go on…” In 1968 he ensured the suspension from the US team of sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos after they gave their Black Power salute on the podium following the 200 metre event. “They violated one of the basic principals of the Olympic Games. That politics play no part whatsoever in them,” he said. (Interestingly, the second place finisher, Peter Norman, also protested and wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, attracting criticism but not suspension.)

Sport and politics mix at the 1968 Olympics.

Perhaps it is worth noting that Brundage was also a proponent of amateurism in sport, and was quoted saying that, “As soon as you take money for playing sport, it isn’t sport, it’s work.” He would certainly have been opposed to the commercial direction that the modern Olympics has taken – although the ‘amateurism’ of the Olympics was always rife with contradictions.

It may be a cliche to say that everything is political, but it is clear even from Brundage’s views that he was motivated by strong political beliefs of his own. Presumably, too, he could see that the Berlin Olympics – like perhaps every games subsequent – was a political project as much as a sporting one. Host cities have used the Games as political showcases (see Beijing most recently), just as athletes have used them to make their own statements, or terrorists and protesters have attacked the Olympics to make broader statements.

Given, too, the boycotts that have affected Olympic (and Commonwealth) Games over the years, separating the politics from the sport is a pure fiction. We might hold up sport as a pure and untainted ideal, but its organization and conduct is but an extension of the values – the politics – that we deploy to govern ourselves and project our image internationally. Politics as culture as sport.

The cycling connection

The link between sport and politics in cycling is an interesting one, which can only be briefly discussed here but which is one of the themes of this blog. It is worth noting, in particular, that the Tour de France in its early history was a specific political project. Henri Desgrange conceived it as a unifying force for a France dominated largely at the time by regionalism, and also as a project for improving the health and vitality of its population. It also became a tool for upward mobility, for working-class riders to learn bourgeois values but while always remembering their place in society – under the benevolent tutelage of rule-makers such as Desgrange.

Desgrange, like Brundage, was a strong proponent of amateurism. He resisted the commercialism of the Tour and was in constant battles with the manufacturers who sponsored the teams. He wanted his political values to drive the Tour, not the commercial imperatives of industry. (It is perhaps worth contrasting the Tour, pre-WW II under Desgrange, with the Giro, with the latter essentially run by the trade teams.) Much of this sentiment persisted in even the smallest ways, such as the yellow jersey for the longest time being free of large sponsor of team logos – a sharp contrast with today.

The running of national teams at the Tour was a tool that Desgrange used to blunt the commercial ambitions of the sponsors, somewhat ironic given that Desgrange still wanted to sell newspapers after all. National teams were also run post-WW II (after Desgrange had passed) as a means to boost nationalism and to equate sporting success with a national pride focussed on rebuilding the country after the war (and perhaps forgetting some shameful incidents as well). Of note, these post-war Tours also benefitted from explicit political gains won in the 1930s that gave workers long summer holidays, ensuring large roadside crowds to support their heroes.

Trade teams returned in 1962, under pressure from the sponsors. National teams were run again briefly in 1967 and 1968, “In response to the noble and superior interests of the race, to the wishes of the public and the desires of the public authorities,” according to L’Equipe. In truth, it was as much of a battle between the Tour organizers and the sponsors, and an effort to boost public interest, as it was about ‘noble’ goals.

Today, commercialism and the interests of the sponsors is at the fore, although there has been some talk – that has come to naught so far – of a return to the national team format. Despite the ascendancy of commercialism, itself an interesting political development (the market as the dominant force in organizing the race, the monetary factors determining the route, the requirements of television in making the schedule, and so on) there is still plenty of politics – best seen by the ASO versus WADA versus the UCI over doping controls at the Tour, or the ASO versus the UCI over the pro tour calendar and the worldwide development of the sport.

The Tour as a political statement

The 1948 Tour de France saw the first post-WW II participation of an official Italian team. It was only the second post-war Tour, although the Giro d’Italia had held its first returning race in 1946. It was clear that the rivalry between Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi was going to define Italian cycling: Bartali won the Giro in 1946 and Coppi won it in 1947. By the following year their professional rivalry was so intense that Coppi refused to ride on the Italian Tour team with Bartali and pulled out of consideration. The Giro that year had been won by Fiorenzo Magni.

Despite Bartali being only five years older than Coppi, much was made of Bartali’s role as the elder statesman and Coppi as the young upstart. Bartali was the traditional; Coppi the modern. (For more on the fascinating contrasts between the two men, William Fotheringham’s book Fallen Angel is an absolute must read.) There was much truth to this contrast. Coppi investigated all manner of dietary and training innovations, such as increased carbohydrates and lighter, more frequent meals instead of large and meat-based servings, as well as interval and motor-paced training. He stressed hydration, rest and recovery, and also explored the latest pharmacological aids (primarily amphetamines).

In contrast, Bartali was a volume trainer. Blessed with a seemingly iron constitution (and reportedly a very low heart rate), Bartali was well known for staying up late, enjoying his red wine and other beverages, and more than the occasional cigarette. He was wary of doping – and apparently fascinated by Coppi’s use of drugs – but was reported to have enjoyed more than 20 espressos every day, leading commentators to suggest that he was already well stimulated.

Bartali's hard-man persona was nowhere more evident than in the mountains.

Bartali was unsure how he would fare in the 1948 Tour. By the rest day in Cannes on 14 July he had won three stages, but was 21’20” behind a brilliant young Frenchman, Louison Bobet. According to reports, the Italian press corps was already packing its bags to go home. But back in Italy, the head of the Italian Communist party, Palmiro Togliatti, was shot by an assassin in the morning and badly wounded. Given the fragile post-war political situation, with its roots back in the collapse of fascism at the end of WW II, the assassination attempt provoked chaos and a general strike was called. A Communist uprising and civil war was feared. That evening, according to the story, Bartali’s old friend, Alcide De Gasperi, prime minister and head of the Christian Democrat party (he had been imprisoned under Mussolini for opposing fascism), phoned him and pleaded for a miracle.

Bartali responded by winning the next two mountain stages in the Alps, with winning margins of 6’18” and 5’53”. By the end of the second stage in Aix-les-Bains, he had clawed back his deficit to Bobet and added an 8 minute buffer (by Paris, he would be 26 minutes ahead of the second place finisher; Bobet was fourth at 32’59”). It was a display of total dominance and Italy was supposedly spellbound, all thoughts of civil war forgotten as they listened to their radios. On 17 July, the day after Bartali’s two stage wins, the general strike was called off and Togliatti was declared in a stable condition in hospital.

Bartali chases down Bobet on the Croix de Fer on the road to Aix-les-Bains.

Once the Tour was over, Bartali was declared the ‘saviour of Italy’ by many reporters and the myth was cemented in place. Sport had epitomized the political – one sportsman had saved a whole country from political upheaval and civil war.

Experts were later been skeptical of this narrative. Benji Maso argues that despite the general strike the danger of civil war after the attack on Togliatti was already easing due to the failure of the assassination. Others have agreed, and former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, who at the time was a young Christian Democrat politician, told the New York times: ”To say that civil war was averted by a Tour de France victory is surely excessive. But it is undeniable that on that 14th of July of 1948, the day of the attack on Togliatti, Bartali contributed to ease the tensions.” Actually, Bartali’s contribution started the next day, on the 15th, which only reinforces Andreotti’s downplaying of Bartali’s efforts. Nonetheless, Bartali’s stage wins were given political status and a meaning greater than just their stature as sporting victories.

The politics of the personal

Yad Vashem is “the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust”, established in 1953 in Israel. One of its projects is to celebrate and remember The Righteous Among The Nations, individuals that stood up to Nazi atrocities against Jews. Sportspersons are included among the righteous. For example, Yad Vashem recounts the story of Polish soccer player Tadeusz Gebethner who in 1939 fought the German invasion of Poland, then later escaped from a prison camp and saved Jewish families from imprisonment before dying in the Warsaw uprising in 1944.

It has been known for a number of years that Gino Bartali was involved in efforts during the war to shelter local Jews, something that he keep largely quiet in post-war years. Yad Vashem is currently considering his elevation to The Righteous Among Nations, like Tadeusz, in recognition for his efforts.

One might have reasonably titled this article sport and religion, given Bartali’s well-reported piousness and the role of the Catholic church in Italy. But politics was still always to the fore, perhaps epitomized by the debate over Pope Pius’s response to Nazi deportations of Italian Jews and Nazi atrocities in general. This debate among historians will be ongoing, but at the personal level, a number of Catholics and Catholic institutions in Italy sheltered Jews from deportation.

The Delegation for the Assistance of Jewish Emigrants (Delegazione per l’Assistenza degli Emigranti Ebrei) or DELASEM was responsible for coordinating the emigration of Jewish refugees from Italy from 1939 onwards. After the German occupation of Italy in September 1943, DELASEM was forced underground but continued to work with local Catholic leaders in the Rome and Genoa areas and helped coordinate the hiding or escape of up to 35,000 Italian and foreign Jews, according to reports.

In the Florence area, DELASEM’s efforts were run by Giorgio Nissim, a Jewish accountant from Pisa, and the branch is credited with saving 800 people. Reports have not recounted exactly how Bartali became involved but in the period of the occupation he was not required for wartime service and devoted himself to training. During his training rides from Florence, often to Pisa and Lucca, he helped carry forged documents hidden in the tubing of his bike frame to assist refugees hidden in convents and monasteries.

“His role was to take photos and paper to clandestine printing presses to produce the false documents,” according to his son, Andrea. “He was also a guide to indicate the lesser known roads to arrive at central areas of Italy without being seen.”

One such refuge was the monastery in San Quirico d’Orcia, which Bartali would visit with forged documentation. Naturally, his training rides enabled him to range far and wide: San Quirico d’Orcia is 127 kilometres from Florence. According to testimony for Yad Vashem, Giulia Donati recalled the escape of her family from Florence to Lido di Camaiore where they were offered a home thanks to two elderly sisters, Isabella Pacini and Settilia Crocini. Bartali ferried documents to them as well, some 100 kilometres from his home in Florence. Reports have suggested he might have ridden as far as Rome: 285 kilometres, which is not unreasonable – the longest stage in the 1938 Tour (Bartali’s first Tour win) was 311 kilometres.

The authorities were suspicious of Bartali’s activities but, given his public profile, were reluctant to intervene. Despite this, one must not minimize the risks he was taking on with such support for resistance efforts. At one point he was reportedly forced to send his own family into hiding.

One cannot help but wonder as to Bartali’s motivation. His reputation as one of cycling’s old-school hard men, even against the standard of the 1940s, is set in stone. He was a good Catholic and his piety is well known. He was a garrulous character, but with conservative politics. What political views drove him to take such risks? According to reports, Bartali spoke little to his family about his exploits. “One does these things and then that’s that,” he apparently said. It may have been that Bartali articulated his politics by his actions, through his riding. Or it might simply have been his humanity. Maybe not everything is political after all.

Bartali was driven by his rivalry with Coppi, but the drive behind his wartime exploits remains a mystery.

6 thoughts on “The politics of the personal

  1. Talking about Italian politics and cycling, wasn’t there also in the 1920s or thereabout a league of red cyclist. I think I read about that somewhere.
    They would organise group rides while spreading their propaganda with people they encountered on the road.


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