An Olympic champion is by definition an extraordinary person. But Stefano Baldini, who competes in the Flora London Marathon on Sunday could reasonably expect compound interest on his kudos.
For the Italian has run counter to the strongest wind of change that has ever swept through his sport. In an age when long-distance running has become so dominated by east Africans that more than 500 Kenyans ran under two hours 20 minutes for the marathon last year – compared with 21 Italians and 11 Britons for example – Baldini’s Olympic title at Athens 2004 proved that a non-African can still win at the highest championship level.
The extent of Baldini’s achievement is not measured simply in contrast to the quantity of Kenyans, but also the quality. The world record of 2:04:55 is held by Paul Tergat, and no big city marathon nowadays is won by anyone other than one of his Kenyan colleagues, or perhaps one of their near neighbours, the Ethiopians.
There has been much debate about the reasons for this hegemony – or “tyranny” as Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan described it on Tuesday, after Robert Cheruyiot, another Kenyan, successfully defended his Boston Marathon title the previous day.
But putting aside arguments about genetic predisposition or the benefits of birth and nurture at altitude, the more interesting question for a competitor is how to cope with and combat the African contingent.
And while marathon statistics might show that Kenyans rule, this was not the case when it counted most, in the Olympic Games. So how did Baldini, not for the first time, turn the tables on the east Africans?
His victory in Athens was the product of a competitive philosophy and preparation, worked out with his long-time coach Luciano (Lucio) Gigliotti, that had already won the Italian a host of titles at world and European level, and which he intends, accident and injury permitting, will reap him a second Olympic title in Beijing next year.
Baldini, 35, has made no secret of his strategy for countering the east African tide. He initially outlined it after the first of his two European marathon titles, in Budapest nine years ago. And he and his coach elaborated on it this week prior to their final serious workout before travelling to London.
“There are over two minutes between my personal best [2:07:22 in London 2006] and Tergat’s,” says Baldini, “and I know I cannot compete when there is a race with pacemakers. But when there are no pacemakers, like in the Olympics, and there are medals to be won, it is a different race.
“In Athens, it was hot and humid, which also makes it difficult for the Africans. In this kind of weather the gap is smaller.”
Coach Gigliotti takes up the tale. “In Athens, the course was up and down, and we trained in St Moritz on ground like this. The Olympics is not about record times, it is about performance and the other competitors. You have to read the race, control the other guys.
“The Kenyans are strong, they can run 2:58, 2:59 per kilometre, but they spend the same energy running 3:10, 3:15 pace. In Athens, Tergat was finished by 32 kilometres; Stefano asked him, ‘Come on Paul, go ahead’. But after 500 metres he understood he was tired.”
The Kenyan world record holder finished 10th while Baldini, having won in 2:10:55, was completing his lap of honour around the old marble Panathenaikon stadium.
An accident of geography – the 72-year-old Gigliotti lives only 10km away from Baldini in Modena, north-eastern Italy – thrust the runner into the ambit of one of the best marathon coaches in the world. Gigliotti had already coached one Italian, Gelindo Bordin to an Olympic marathon title, in Seoul 1988. Now the coachhas the enviable status of being the only man in athletics history to have guided two athletes to the ultimate marathon glory.
“They have a different typology,” says Gigliotti of his two famous charges. “Gelindo was more resistant, very strong, good in endurance. Stefano is faster, with more aerobic power; he can run 27:43 for 10,000m. Gelindo ran lots of kilometres, up to 280 per week in the last two months before a marathon. Stefano only does about 220.”
Baldini says of his coach: “Lucio has always kept updated during the years. His training methods are not always the same for his athletes, but adapted to their different characteristics. For instance, I have never used the programme of Gelindo. This is the secret which explains the success of Lucio.”
The best that Baldini has achieved in seven London Marathon starts is second place, in 1997 and 2003, and Sunday being one of those paced races, with both Tergat and track giant Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia competing, the Italian does not expect to do any better, the more so since an illness in February stalled his preparation. He plans to run just two more marathons before Beijing. And although he knows that at 37 next year, age will not be on his side, history has given a nod in his direction.
Carlos Lopes of Portugal won the 1984 Olympic title, on a blisteringly hot day in Los Angeles, at that age. And Beijing in August is nothing if not hot and humid, just like Athens.
Gigliotti says: “At 37, Stefano will lose a little power, so we need to train a lot faster, to improve aerobic power, and more elastic strength.
“He wants to run under 2:07 before then. That is impossible in Osaka [the Athletics World Championships in August], so maybe he will run Berlin or Chicago [in autumn], then London 2008.”
“I was young in 1984,” says Baldini, “but I remember Lopes winning. In Beijing, I will run the same as Athens, I think it is a good programme.
“I’m still hungry, the Olympics is a special atmosphere, it still motivates me. It will probably be my last race.
“I want to finish on top, and there is nothing better than finishing at the Olympics.”