13/07/2021   Remembering Italian race walking maverick Frigerio on anniversary of third Olympic gold



We propose the beautiful article by Paul Warburton for World Athletics published today July 13, on the anniversary of the third Olympic gold medal by Ugo Frigerio (ITA)





He was a friend of Mussolini and even conducted an orchestra in the middle of an Olympic final. To say Ugo Frigerio was one of athletics’ all-time characters doesn’t do the Italian justice.

The son of a greengrocer, he starred in three Olympic Games 12 years apart and is the second most successful Olympic race walker of all time, ranking behind only Robert Korzeniowski’s total of four golds.

In the 1924 Chariots of Fire Games, while Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell ran to glory later immortalised in an Oscar-winning film, Frigerio was race walking to 10km gold on 13 July by a massive 49 seconds over second place.

And for those who claim modern judges don’t disqualify enough race walkers who transgress, the officials 97 years ago had eliminated 14 of the 25 athletes in action in the two semifinals a few days earlier.

In the first qualifier on 9 July, Austrian Rudolf Kühnel was disqualified by judges Emilio Lunghi of Italy and John Orbertubbesing of the USA. After appeal, the jury amazingly allowed Kühnel to start in the second semifinal on 11 July. However, the bank of judges, about 10 in number, resigned en masse in protest at the snub to their colleagues. The Austrian fared no better under the second set of officials and was disqualified again – this time for good.

With trademark handkerchief around his right hand, Frigeiro had won his semifinal in 49:15.6, and was clearly saving his best for the final.

In the race for the medals, Donato Pavesi – also from Milan, like Frigeiro – shot away in the hope of upsetting the bookie’s favourite. Britain’s Gordon Goodwin soon passed him, but at 800m the favourite moved effortlessly to the front. Frigeiro’s second half of 23:18.2 underlined his pedigree, but even then, he got a warning from British judge, Fowler.

At the time, Goodwin had a slender chance of gold, so maybe a little favouritism supplanted objectivity? At least it did in the Italian press.

It mattered not.

Frigerio was head and shoulders over the rest of the field for his third Olympic triumph.

It says much for the Italian’s belief in his faultless style he was unperturbed at being visible to all for 9.2km and therefore unable to ‘hide’ in a pack. At the finish in 47:49.0, he had enough spare over Goodwin to wave at fans and pose for pictures.

Four years earlier in Antwerp, he raced four times in five days and set an Olympic record in the 3000m, a mark that stands to this day after the event was subsequently abandoned. He first set a new Olympic mark in the semi-final (13:40.02) but was clearly coasting. In the final, he was clear by halfway and clocked 13:14.2 to win by five seconds from Australian George Parker.

But it was the 10,000m on 18 August, three days earlier, that captured the public imagination – then and now.

USA’s Joseph Pearman led for the first 10 laps, with the first kilometre covered in a brisk 4:28, but Frigeiro was biding his time. One of three existing snippets of film has him in seventh place, 50 metres back in the early stages. He made a surge at about half way so that his back became a distant dot to the rest.

It takes some front to hand out sheet music to the musicians on the infield beforehand, but Frigerio was so much better than the rest – and knew it.

It was essentially march music, and of course the Italian walked in step with the tempo, at one stage indicating the band was playing too slowly. He even had time to shout back his thanks to spectators who cheered him towards the end.

Frigeiro was able to show off – there’s no other word for it – because he knew his lead had grown close to a circuit over second place. After all, he was only 18.

He lapped eventual fourth-place finisher Cecil McMaster, and all four behind the South African. Belgium’s poor Antoine Doyen got passed three times by the flying Italian.

An excited boy scout, whose job it was to raise the flag of the winning nation, did so even before Frigeiro crossed the line in 48:06.2. He had to wait another 1:34.0 before Pearman claimed the silver medal.

As Frigeiro pronounced, somewhat loftily and with a dig at the band: “My class got the upper hand, and the Italian victory had the seal of the Royal March played at a funeral cadence.

“(Beforehand) I ate like a wolf, idled like a street urchin and slept like a log.”

There had been 31 disqualifications in two Olympics by the end of the 1924 Games, including Kühnel’s unfortunate double. At the time, it only needed a single judge to decide a race walker’s fate as opposed to the three in the modern era.

History has a funny way of repeating itself, because then, as now, there was considerable debate over race walking distances.

The judging came under severe scrutiny and was inferred favouritism had crept in, especially if an athlete was from a judge’s own country, or connected to it. For example, Pavesi was disqualified in the Antwerp 10km by the Australian judge while in third place. Not only that, but the luckless Italian got yanked out by the arm by said judge in front of the press stand going down the home straight. The bronze went to Britain’s Charlie Gunn; Australia was part of the British Empire at the time.

It was not a good look for the sport.

Having shot itself in the foot, race walking was dropped entirely from the 1928 Games in Amsterdam. Frigeiro semi-retired in bitter disappointment, but he went on to star in a tour in the USA in 1925 where he set six world indoor records at a time when indoor results weren't officially recognised.

His appetite for further Olympic success was rekindled when race walking got reinstated in the 1932 Games to be held in Los Angeles. However, the new event was 50km – five times his preferred racing distance. Nevertheless, he went at it with gusto, training for more than a year in an attempt for a fourth gold.

Three race walkers were soon out front in the blazing heat of 3 August 1932: Frigeiro, Janis Dalins from Latvia, and Great Britain’s Tommy Green. They were still together at 37.5km, hand timed at 3:39:55.

Green then suffered a touch of sunstroke, but a bucket of iced water thrown over him enabled a quick recovery. Dalins then started to cramp up, and the final 10km told on both he and Frigeiro. Green’s second wind saw him break the tape in 4:50:10, more than seven minutes in front of Dalins, and two more ahead of Frigeiro.

The Italian’s bronze in 4.59:06 came at the expense of blisters that turned into sores. He could barely walk for the next two weeks. That was enough.

Frigeiro was still only 31, but retired to become a sports administrator. In 1934, he wrote an autobiography titled Marciando nel nome dell’Italia (Walking in the Name of Italy).

The preface was written by his friend Benito Mussolini. Italy’s dictator knew a good thing when he saw it, and association with the Italian hero was a prime example.

Italy’s race walking giant – at least in the figurative sense, because he was actually 1.71m (5ft 7.5in) – has a street named after him in Milan.

He predated the famous line from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, where two characters mishear Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, thinking he says: “Blessed are the cheesemakers”, rather than ‘peacemakers’. Later, Frigeiro set himself up in, of all things, a cheese-making business.

The Italian died in 1968 aged 66, but his dominance in two Olympics demonstrated just how truly he was blessed.

Paul Warburton for World Athletics