The news that Eugenio Monti had committed suicide on Dec. 1 at the age of 75 (brought about by his battle with Parkinson’s disease) probably didn’t raise too many eyebrows, but for those in the know the Italian was the very epitome of sportsmanship.
With modern athletes more interested in gamesmanship — whether it be diving in the penalty area, trying to con the referee into sending an opponent off, faking injury etc., not to mention taking whatever drugs can give you an edge — the art of sportsmanship seems to have been forgotten.
True, there have been some isolated incidents such as West Ham’s Paulo di Cannio handling the ball when in a scoring position so the opposition goalkeeper could be treated for an injury during an English Premier League soccer game; New Zealand’s Tana Umaga removing Colin Charvis’ mouth guard and putting the Welsh flanker in the recovery position before chasing after the ball in a rugby union international; and Australian cricketer Adam Gilchrist walking in a test match despite the umpire having turned down the appeal; but most modern sportsman could well learn something from the honorable Italian.
Born in Dobbiaco, Italy, on Jan. 23, 1928, Monti was a talented skier, who turned to bobsledding after a knee injury finished his career on the piste, and in the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the Italian won two silver medals.
Bobsledding was not included in the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley, Calif. as the track was deemed unsuitable for international competition, but when it returned to the Games in 1964 in Innsbruck, Austria, Monti was considered to be one of the favorites for both the two-man and four-man competitions.
However, he had not counted on Canada I, which tore up the track in setting an Olympic record in the first run of the four-man competition. The quick time had come at a cost, though, for Victor Emery and his crew, who discovered that their axle had been damaged. Facing disqualification, Emery was shocked to return to his sled and see it upside down and torn apart. But it was nothing more malicious than the Italian mechanics, under orders from Monti, coming to the Canadians’ aid and helping to fix the axle that had become seized.
With everything in working order, Canada I went on to win the gold medal, while Monti settled for bronze.
But that was only half the story.
After the third run in the two-man competition, that had been held prior to the four-man event, Great Britain I was lying in second place behind the Monti-piloted Italy I. However, like the Canadian bobsled, the British bob had been damaged and it appeared as if a broken axle bolt would deny Tony Nash and Robin Dixon Britain’s first gold medal since Jeanette Altwegg took gold in the women’s figure skating in 1952.
But like the Canadians, they had not counted on Monti’s sense of fair play.
As U.S. Olympic swimming champion John Naber later put it after winning four golds and one silver in Montreal in 1976: “A true sportsman, who understands the Olympic ideal, wants to win against his best opponent on his best day.”
Monti not only wanted to race against the best, but race against them on equal terms.
Prior to starting his final run, Monti said, “Get an Englishman and a spanner to the finish and they can have my bolt.”
A young flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force, Mike Freeman, was the brakeman of Great Britain II.
“By the time I got to the bottom, Monti was already out of his bob and trying to get the bolt off,” said Freeman in a telephone interview with The Japan Times. “Once we got it off he simply said, ‘Go quickly, Mike.’ My only worry was whether I would get back to the top in time.”
Freeman did make it in time and the bolt was attached to Nash and Dixon’s bob enabling Great Britain I to go on and win gold, with Monti finishing in third place.
“Looking back it was almost something we expected from him because he was such a nice guy,” said the retired R.A.F. officer, who added that four years later in Grenoble, France, Monti and his mechanics were to help out again when the British bob of John Blockey and Freeman once again ran into technical problems.
“Even so, giving up the possible chance of a gold medal (at Innsbruck) was an extraordinary thing to do.”
Monti was adamant that he made the right decision and told the Italian press, who were slightly put out by his generosity, to say the least: “Nash didn’t win because I gave him the bolt. He won because he had the fastest time.”
Fortunately, Monti, who was awarded the first Pierre de Coubertin medal for fair play, went on to win both the two-man and four-man competitions at the 1968 Games at the age of 40, to go along with the nine golds, three silvers and two bronzes he won at World Championships between 1956 and 1968.
Monti will be remembered by all that had the honor and privilege of competing against him, and the organizers of the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, have ensured that his name will live on as they have decided to name the bobsled track at Cesano Pariol “Rosso Volante” — the Italian’s nickname.
If anyone defined the meaning of sportsman and was worthy of being called an Olympic hero (too often misused to simply describe a winning athlete) it was Eugenio Monti, who pursued victory with zeal and passion, while recognizing there is no true victory without honor.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.