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The fantastic Fiasconaro

Submitted by on Saturday, 25 October 2008No Comment
The fantastic Fiasconaro

Still firmly entrenched in SA, the March Hare reflects on talking Italian, a passion for rugby, breaking the world 800m record, and competing in the 1972 Munich Olympics — which was ruined by the massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

How good were you at athletics at school?

I was at Rondebosch and there was a always a triangular athletics meet, but only the top three in an event made it to that, and I never made the top three. I once came fifth in a cross country but that was a fluke, not sure how it happened (laughs). I actually mainly played rugby and at some stage played for Western Province under 20.

So when did athletics start for you?

After national service, I played rugby at Villagers, which had amalgamated with Celtic Harriers who never had a clubhouse, and I somehow got myself into their 4 x 100m relay team which represented Western Province. We beat Maties, (Stellenbosch) who had a couple of Springboks in their side. Mind you I only ran about 11.2 sec for 100m – not a great time. So I supposed it started from there.

How did you graduate from that to middle distance running?

Dave Stewart, who had helped coach us at Province under 20, said to me, ‘Why don’t you try 400m, because your times are never going to be earth shattering at 100m?’ Well in my first race at 400m, I won my heat in the same time as a Springbok runner, Ferdie Poggenpohl. So people started to take notice and eventually I was invited to one of those great Coetzenberg meetings. (Smiles) They say you can’t hear the crowd when you run – well I certainly heard them as I caught the front runner two metres from the line and won the 400m (laughs).

And the 800m?

I got to be ranked seventh in the world at 400m; my best time was 45.49 when I won silver medal at the European Championship of Helsinki. But at that time the American Negroes, like Lee Evans were running so fast, I just couldn’t improve my position. Also in those early days I used to get terrible headaches after races, because I don’t think I trained hard enough and then I would try make up for it in the race by killing myself (laughs). I would kick from 150m out and then I would be running and breathing through every orifice in my body (smiles). But because I seemed to be stuck at a level, my trainer Stewart Banner said let’s try the 800m.

How come you raced in the European Championships?

I had dual SA/ Italian citizenship, so I ran for Italy.

What were your times like?

My first 800m I ran 1:51 and then it took me about three races to go under 1:50 to 1:49/ 1:48. In 1973 I won the SA Champs in 1:45,2.

Did you ever consciously go out to break the world 800m record?

No, never. It’s a strange thing, but I think South African athletes are scared to think big. I mean at the time I was only comma 4 of a second off the World Record of 1:44,3 held by Peter Snell. I remember once holding two stopwatches and saying to a friend, ‘I’m going to click at the world record and I’m going to click where I am.’ You can’t believe how small the difference was. It was literally, ‘Click – click’. But I still didn’t think I should attack it – (smiles) my mate still laughs about it. Anyway in 1973 I went over to race for Italy against Czechoslovakia – it was like a Test Match. They had a guy called Josef … something, one of the youngest Olympic finalists ever, who was famed for his ‘kick’ – his last 150m were blistering. So my coach, Stewart Banner and I decided I should start the race and go out like a madman and try burn him off. It was weird – that whole day I had a headache and I didn’t feel like running. Anyway I started flat out and at 400m I turned slightly to see how far back Josef was and he was right on my shoulder. I despaired, ‘Now what?’So I just kept going. Basically I kicked at 400m, I simply couldn’t go any faster. When we had 150m to go and he was supposed to explode past me, because of his famed ‘kick’; suddenly he looked as though he was running uphill – I had actually blown him off (laughs). So I won and got the record, although at first I had no idea, as all I had wanted to do was win. I ran 1:43,7. Josef coming second actually ran the previous Olympics winning time.

How long did you hold the record?

That record stood until the Montreal Olympics of 1976, when Alberto Juantorena ran 1:43.50.

Apparently it is the most long-lived Italian athletics record of every genre?

Yes. (Laughs) I’ll probably go there for my 60th birthday next year, and I could still be the current 800m Italian record holder.

Apparently when you won the record you ran in a blue vest, but it wasn’t the Italian colours?

(Laughs) Who told you that? Yes in those days Southern Transvaal had the same colour blue as Italy, with a gold stripe across the chest; I would turn it inside-out so the stripe didn’t show. The Italians weren’t wild about it, but I said, ‘Do you guys want a result or do you want me to dress properly?’ I had won the SA Champs in it and beaten Danie Malan twice in it, so it was my ‘lucky’ vest.

So were you superstitious?

Yes (laughs) – I also had a pair of red skants I always wore when I raced, until they literally disintegrated. And I had all the normal little rituals and routines (smiles).

When you took out Italian citizenship so that you could run internationally, could you speak Italian?

I couldn’t speak a word (laughs). My father says there were three sentences I could say. ‘The track is hard. The track is soft.’ And, ‘Where is the toilet?’ Which were all quite important to an athlete. But if you were travelling with a team of 55 athletes to a championship in Helsinki, and they only spoke Italian, you picked it up quite quickly. So in the end I could speak it fluently.

Did you encounter any flak for being a South African using your Italian connection?

Not as much as Zola Budd had when she did a similar thing. I got a bit of flak from the Afrikaans press. One headline was, ‘March die Verraier’, (March the Traitor). Although to be fair, some of them who knew about athletics and cared, said I must go, and supported me. But in those years 1970/ 71/ 72 there was no ways in a million years South Africa was going to run in an Olympics and from my point of view, I had a gift and I was going to use it.

In 1972 you went to run for Italy at the Munich Olympics. They were intended to represent a new, democratic and optimistic Germany, but were ruined by the killings of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists. How were you affected?

Well, the village was organised alphabetically, so Italy was close to Israel. We usually used to wake up and walk to the breakfast hall. That morning we woke up and on our way to breakfast, there were dozens of soldiers with Uzis on both sides of the street. No-one had heard anything and there were all sorts of rumours about people being killed. It was very confusing and frightening. Then the story unfolded. It was outrageous, tragic to put it mildly and very sad. And a lot of athletes just lost heart and left. The Olympics were briefly suspended; they had a huge memorial service and then resumed a day later.

How did you do in your event?

I was still running 400m and my season had started well. In my first race that year I beat the 3rd ranked runner in the world. But from that moment I developed a stress fracture. When I got to the Olympics, I had been in the village 23 days and had 33 injections in my foot. There were guys who just ran, regardless – like a British runner Colin Campbell (800m) – who only ran 40m and pulled up because he had a hamstring injury, which he knew he had before the race. But now he can always say he ran in the Olympics. I never wanted an excuse when I raced, so I refused to run. I do sometimes regret it (smiles). Worst was, my heat was won in a time much slower than I had run. So sadly I never ran in the Olympics.

How did breaking the world record affect your life?

(Laughs) Instead of realising I had something that was gold that I could build on; I said this is party time! I trained on and off, got a bit out of shape and lost a race quite badly, which shocked me. I then briefly got back into the best shape of my life and went to run in Oslo, where in the semi-final of the European Cup, unbelievably – I was false-started. To this day the Italians feel it was a plot against me, but at the time there was nothing I could do. That was the end of the season. I then retired before the Montreal Olympics. I didn’t want to go through another year of injections for my stress fracture. But I never used the fact that I was a world record holder to my benefit in the way they would do nowadays. It should have been a bigger deal in my life.

Tell me about pacemakers; the athletes who do the front running to enable someone else to do a fast time.

I think it makes athletics very boring. In a race, the pacemaker helps if you run behind him, especially if you are running into wind. But what it removes is the fear in the athlete, because now everything has been mapped out to the last second. Who will run what. When they will get out the way. When the star will take over. They know the plan. Yet you see those same athletes in an Olympics Final, or in the European Champs, where they don’t have a pacemaker, and suddenly they’re nervous and there is a different edge to the race. It then becomes so much more exciting.

Apparently in later years you helped soccer legend and coach, Eddie Lewis, train his soccer players?

Yes it was Wits. We used to take them – I remember Jimmy Cook – for runs from Wanderers through the bird sanctuary in Melrose. And we used to do hill training, (laughs) they used to vomit – it was great.

There is a wonderful book of short stories by Alan Sillitoe called, ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner’. I know you ran middle-distance, but was your running a lonely pursuit?

No. That was the beauty of Wanderers, where I trained in those days. We had a great bunch of guys who used to run together like Alan Smith a 400m hurdler, Martin Haak a younger 400m runner and my late brother-in-law Richard Morrison, who was a good athlete. We used to train in a group. We would go on morning runs together which actually made it quite social – so no, I wasn’t lonely.

In your time, what was the situation with regard to running against black athletes?

No problem. In 1971 we had the SA Games in Cape Town, which were multiracial and in 1973 they were held up here and everyone raced. The press made a big thing of it, but it was normal for us. I often ran against guys like Humphrey Khosi. And there was a sprinter, Joseph Lesewane, who was a good friend of mine and Danie Malan.

There are numerous stories of sportsmen failing in business. Adidas sponsored you when you were racing and now you actually have their agency – how is the business doing?

It’s going very well. Yes, I suppose it was a natural progression – I always loved their products and I have always been in the sports trade. A guy called Tony O’Hagan got the Adidas agency and I became a partner of his and it grew from there.

If athletics didn’t exist, what sport could you have excelled at?

Rugby – although I’d have loved to be good at golf.

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