Italy's Stefano Baldini lived up to his already formidable reputation as a runner able to peak for the big championship occasion, when he won the Olympic marathon title in Athens.
It was a victory which topped a long list of other notable performances including the 1996 World Half Marathon title, the 1998 European Marathon gold, and two World Championship bronze medals for the Marathon - Edmonton 2001 and Paris 2003.
"I have always been able to organise my preparation so I am ready to face the decisive stages of the race, in which ever has been the most important event of the year. In addition I have found a balance in the organisation of my daily life. Of course I was lucky to stay injury-free and to reach my top form in Olympic year and this has helped me to fulfil my dream", explained Baldini.
The 33 year-old holds the Italian record of 2:07:27 which he set in London in 2002 but he has reached the highlight of his career in major championships races. "The Olympic or World Championships where medals are at stake are more fascinating than the races against the clock. What matters are medals rather than fast times."
Hard work repaid
He has become a national legend since his Olympic gold medal on the course from Marathon to the Panathinaiko Stadium where Spiridon Louis became the first man to win the first Olympic Marathon gold medal in 1896.
"I felt that I could win because I was one hundred percent fit both physically and mentally. I did not fear either my rivals or the course. In the first kilometres I was a bit nervous because the pace was slow. I launched my attack at the 32 km in order to close the gap on Vanderlei De Lima. During the race my confidence was boosted when I saw that Paul Tergat was not in good shape.”
"The hard work I have done in my career to make this dream come true has been repaid. I knew that only by winning the Olympic gold could I definitely bounce back from the disappointment I had four years ago in Sydney where I was forced to drop out of the Olympic race due to an injury. After Sydney I began to think over the Athens race thousands of times."
"I am surprised about the extra-motivation and determination I had that day. Before the race I repeatedly said that I needed to surprise myself to achieve what I did."
Record TV audience
Baldini's win over USA’s Mebrathom Keflezighi and Brazilian Vanderlei De Lima has had a tremendous impact in Italy and made Baldini a popular figure not only to the athletics enthusiasts but also to the occasional sport viewers.
A record figure of six and a half million people in Italy watched Baldini passing Vanderlei De Lima - who earlier had been impeded by a spectator – after exactly two hours of running and then crossing the finish line in 2:10:55 with a margin of 34 seconds over Keflezhighi. Despite the tremendous effort Baldini seemed to be relatively fresh and full of strength after the race.
"I am moved every time I watch the TV pictures of my final metres in the Panathinaiko Stadium. I am happy that many other Italian people were thrilled by my Olympic achievement."
Stefano received the gold medal from IOC President Jacques Rogge and IAAF President Lamine Diack during the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games, an occasion which attracted an estimated figure of more than one billion people worldwide in front of their TV screens.
"I am proud for what I did for my country. On the podium I sang the national anthem at the top of my voice."
Front-page titles like "Baldini God of Marathon" or "Baldini the modern Spiridon Louis" appeared on the biggest selling italian newspapers which celebrated his feat with many special pages full of reports and interviews from Athens and articles on the history of the marathon race at the Olympic Games from Spiridon Louis, Dorando Pietri and Abebe Bikila to the more recent heroes.
Moreover Baldini has been asked to take part in many TV and radio programmes. His busy schedule now includes a trip to New York for the Big Apple Marathon on 7 November where he will be a special guest, and he has already been to a special ceremony in Rome organized by the President of the Italian Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi to celebrate the national Olympic medallists on 27 September. Mr. Ciampi said that he was moved when watching Baldini's race on television and that he had phoned Baldini after the race.
Good shape – more motivated than ever
"I admit that I have lost my focus in the recent weeks but very soon I will return to a normal athlete's life and begin training seriously for 2005."
But Baldini’s good second place finish in the Scicli road race behind the Olympic 10,000 metres silver medallist Sileshi Sihine and last Saturday's win at the Giro al Sas in Trento has proved he remains in excellent condition.
"I still ask myself how I succeeded in reaching these results after Athens. One reason is my excellent level of preparation for the Olympic Games which has enabled me to keep in very good form for a long time. I did not suffer from leg problems in the days after the Athens marathon. Moreover I have still adrenaline and I am more motivated than ever. I have managed to transform this special motivation into good results."
The future and Beijing
"After a well-deserved rest I will sit around a table to discuss my plans for the future with my coach Lucio Gigliotti. I will be certainly at the Boclassic road race in Bolzano on 31 December. Then I will focus my attention on a spring marathon and the IAAF World Championships in Helsinki. I have London in my heart but I am thinking over the possibility of running the Boston marathon. Paris could be another option. All these are fascinating races which would deserve to be run but obviously I can choose just one of them."
"I will stick to the training schedule I used last year and will probably spend my winter in Namibia. There is no point in changing the programmes for the winter."
"One thing is certain: my win in Athens has made me reconsider my plans for the future. The Athens Games were not my last ones. I still enjoy myself running, so I want to continue for another four-year period and run in Bejing 2008. I felt what it means to win an Olympic gold medal. My next goal is to go to Bejing to feel what it means to go to the Olympics as a defending champion."
Thanks to Lucio Gigliotti
Baldini who comes from Castelnovo di Sotto near Reggio Emilia brought back the Olympic marathon gold medal to Italy sixteen years after Gelindo Bordin's triumph in Seoul. Baldini and Bordin have one coach in common who guided them to their success. His name is Luciano "Lucio" Gigliotti.
Gigliotti, a seventy-year-old man from Modena, grabbed the headlines for the first time in 1986 when Gelindo Bordin won the first of his two European titles. Bordin highlighted his glorious career with the Olympic gold in Seoul 1988 and retained his European crown in 1990. The list of Bordin's achievements also includes a World bronze medal in Rome 1987 and a prestigious win in Boston in 1990 in 2:08:19, a former Italian record.
Gigliotti has also guided Maria Guida to the European marathon title in Munich two years ago and contributed to the success of Steeplecahser Alessandro Lambruschini, 1994 European champion and 1993 World and 1996 Olympic bronze medallist.
"Lucio has been always kept updated during the years. His training methods are not always the same for all his athletes but are adapted to their different characteristics. For instance I have never used the training programmes of Gelindo Bordin. I think this is the secret which explains the success of Lucio Gigliotti", concluded Baldini.
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF