"The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians”
– Avery Brundage, explaining US participation in the Berlin Olympics hosted by the Nazi regime in 1936
"He was risking not only his life but also his family. Gino Bartali saved my life and the life of my family.
That's clear because if he hadn't hidden us, we had nowhere to go."
- Giorgio Goldenberg, a friend of Gino Bartalli’s who Bartali hid, along with his family, from fascists.
Sport and politics have always been uneasy bedfellows, but they are never far apart. Cycling, contrary to the way it might be perceived in this country today, has largely been a sport for working class people looking to escape the mundanity and misery of life at the bottom of the economic ladder. It was bikes that allowed working class young men to rise to stardom in the early Tours de France, and bikes that allowed their friends to ride to work on the weekdays and escape the city for a few hours on the weekends. It was a bike that allowed Gino Bartali to fight fascism by couriering messages, even when he was searched by police, he asked them not to touch his bike as it was fragile and easily damaged. Bartali was a quiet man, he never spoke about what he did to help people, he just rode his bike and tried to make the world a better place.
Now, it seems, is a good time to start speaking about how we can stop making the world a worse place. The people at the bottom of the economic ladder today don’t look much like the people we often see riding bikes and the chances are most of us don’t get a chance to ride bikes with them either. But those people do ride bikes, I see dozens of those bikes abandoned in dead land on the north side of the border between the US and Mexico. Those bikes carry desperate people to what they hope is a better life. Bikes are cool like that, they move people across space really well, that’s why we love riding them. I sometimes see those bikes and wonder what it must feel like to be someone riding them. Sometimes, in a bike race, I can fool myself that it really matters how hard I ride my bike, but it doesn’t. My bike rides sometimes take me away from work stress or a frustrating writing assignment, but I have never pedaled as hard as I can so that I can raise my kids in a city where the water they drink won’t kill them, or where they can go to school without fear of being killed for trying to better their lives. I’ve never had to worry about those things because those things were never at stake for me. For the people who ditch those bikes and keep heading north, those bike rides make their world a better place.
America is a concept built up by people coming here to make their world a better place. The word America comes from a Portuguese settler, it’s not indigenous here and neither are most of us. I have been lucky enough to spend a great deal of time with people who are indigenous here, people who truly belong in the scrap of desert between mines, oil fields and feed lots that we’ve left for them. Amongst those people, the people who have lost nearly all of this beautiful continent to people who look like me, I have never felt a sense of resentment or been made aware of my difference.
I came here a decade ago this month to make my life better, to get a chance to get paid to race my bike and to get a PhD looking at sports and national identity. Now, ten years on, I’m writing a book about the 1936 Olympics, the ones where the world decided to pretend that sport was somehow distinct from politics and where they paraded around Berlin saluting a dictator they would be at war with in a little over two years. By the time of the next Olympic Games, many of those athletes would have died fighting the hateful ideology they gave credibility to by competing.
I’m also an immigrant in this country and I live just a few miles from the border. I’m lucky, I have a visa, a doctorate and a good job. Yet my partner has deportation nightmares that keep her up at night. I teach at a university where many of my students come from countries that people like me have been dropping bombs on for more than a century. None of them blame me for it. They come and sit in my office and we drink tea and talk about football, they search my name on the internet and they laugh when they see me in spandex. They also work damned hard, get good grades, and often have no idea if they’ll ever be able to get a good job or even stay in the only country they’ve ever known. And those are the lucky ones. If their parents were bringing them here now, they might be locked up and left alone and desperately scared.
80 years ago, in another continent, governments were locking up children because of who they were, not what they did. 80 years ago, Gino Bartali won the Tour de France and refused to dedicate his victory to Mussolini. 75 years ago, Germany occupied Italy and Bartali began the dangerous work of riding thousands of kilometers around his occupied nation delivering fake identity documents and orders to the resistance. 70 years ago, Gino Bartali won the Tour de France again. He was asked about his exploits in the war and responded “Real heroes are others, those who have suffered in their soul, in their heart, in their spirit, in their mind, for their loved ones. Those are the real heroes. I'm just a cyclist.” I’m not saying buying a jersey will make you a hero, because it won’t. But, if you’re determined to be “just a cyclist”, be a cyclist like Gino Bartali.
James Stout is a Velocio Ambassador, a former professional racer, a freelance writer and an adjunct professor at San Diego Community College.