When cycling provided light in the Holocaust darkness

The Italian racer used his celebrity status to save Jews from the Nazis
The 4-speed bicycle Gino Bartali rode to victory in the general classification of the 1938 Tour de France (Cc via Wikipedia)
The 4-speed bicycle Gino Bartali rode to victory in the general classification of the 1938 Tour de France (Cc via Wikipedia)

International Holocaust Remembrance Day gives the world an opportunity to bow its collective head, to remember how humanity plunged the depths of evil, and to honour the millions murdered. But this year’s theme, “Our Shared Responsibility” brings into sharp focus the need for action if we are to bring meaning to the phrase ‘Never Again.’ As such, it is the perfect opportunity to remember a hero — a sporting hero — who put everything on the line to save lives during humankind’s darkest hour. The story of Italian cyclist Gino Bartali is not well known. But in an era of unparalleled sporting riches, Bartali’s example shows how sport can be an unequivocal force for good.

Bartali was a superstar of his time, the greatest cyclist of his era. Raised in the 1920s to a poor Tuscan family, he had twice won the Giro d’Italia in the 1930s, before becoming a national icon by triumphing at the 1938 Tour de France. Feted throughout the country, Bartali poignantly refused to dedicate his victory to Mussolini. The gesture was only an indication of what was to come.

By 1943, Italy’s Jews were being rounded up after Mussolini’s ousting by Hitler’s forces. At the very peak of his cycling powers, Bartali dedicated his talents to the good of mankind. Having already refused to let fascism manipulate his fame, Bartali utilized his celebrity status to save lives. Working hand in hand with the Italian resistance, Bartali cycled thousands of kilometres as a courier to deliver forged documents and photographs which would help Jews escape the clutches of Nazism. He disguised these journeys as training rides, knowing that German forces and fascist police would be unlikely to stop a sporting hero in pursuit of excellence. When he was stopped, Bartali stood strong, insisting that his bike containing secret papers be left untouched, having been built to his elite specifications. Bartali also hid a Jewish family in his cellar, well aware that their discovery would endanger his own life and those of his family.

Bartali would go on to win the 1948 Tour de France and was idolised as an Italian sporting great well beyond his retirement. Yet, for the rest of his life, Bartali’s human greatness remained a secret. He refused to speak about his bravery. Even when his son discovered his life-saving efforts, Bartali swore him to secrecy, claiming he was no hero. In 2013, ten years after Bartali’s death, Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims, Yad Vashem, gave Bartali the posthumous honour of Righteous Among the Nations for his courage.

Bartali’s remarkable story is one of exceptional bravery and almost inconceivable modesty. Bartali’s integrity and courage should inspire us, that whatever our skills, we should strive to use our talents for overwhelming good. And in an age when sport is viewed as the path to fame, fortune and material adulation, Bartali showed that at its core, sport is something very different – a force for good.

That is why Bartali’s legacy must endure well beyond International Holocaust Memorial Day. In May, Bartali’s story will be showcased during the 101st Giro d’Italia, the race which made him a star. The Giro will become the first of cycling’s three Grand Tours (the others being the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana) to race outside Europe, kicking off the 2018 edition with the first three stages in Israel. Well aware that the Jewish State is forever indebted to the likes of Bartali, race organizers are rightly using the opportunity to highlight his remarkable efforts, by dedicating the race in Bartali’s honour.

Such a public commemoration may well have alarmed Bartali’s deep sense of modesty. Yet, he would surely be delighted at the wider message this year’s Giro will convey. The race will begin in Jerusalem, holy to all three monotheistic faiths. It will end in Rome, rather than its traditional finale in Milan, sending a strong message of peace on the symbolic route from Jerusalem to Rome. And this theme of peace and fraternity will be in evidence in practice, not just theory. During three days of elite racing, hundreds of millions of viewers will watch the world’s top cyclists race across a country in which Jews, Muslims, Christians, Bedouin, Druze, Circassian, Bahai and many other communities coexist side by side, happily and freely. And if viewers take a close look at the cyclists competing for one of sport’s greatest prizes, they will see that they represent teams from all over the world, including Israel, Bahrain and United Arab Emirates. If you ever wanted to see an example of sport breaking down barriers, exposing the equality of humanity which Bartali treasured, then this is it.

Bartali’s story is a model for all sportspeople, indeed all human beings. This year’s Giro will showcase the universality of sport and its’ ability to unite rather than divide. As we remember the horrors of the past, the 2018 Giro is perhaps the proof we need that Gino Bartali’s spirit lives on today.

Sylvan Adams is the honorary president of ‘Big Start’ Israel, the opening three stages of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

About the Author
Sylvan Adams is a Canadian-born businessman, philanthropist and amateur cycling champion. He is the honorary president of ‘Big Start’ Israel, the opening three stages of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.
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