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Will Barcelona Be Baldini’s Last Stand?

Former Olympic marathon gold medalist making one last go at 26.2 at European Championships.

Written by: David Monti
(c) 2010 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Used with permission.

It was nearly a dozen years ago when Stefano Baldini earned his first European title, winning the gold medal in the marathon at the 1998 European Championships in Budapest.  It was a glorious day for Italian marathoning.  The 27 year-old Baldini led his teammates Danilo Goffi and Vincenzo Modica to silver and bronze medals, respectively, and Italy took home the European Cup for the best team score.

“I was young, but experienced, after a second in London and third place in New York in 1997,” Baldini recalled in an e-mail message to Race Results Weekly last week.  “It was my first appearance in a championships race and I did well.  Budapest was a promising race for many more results in international competitions.”

Indeed.  The handsome, blue-eyed athlete from Rubiera near Modena has compiled one of the most consistent records in the history of marathon running.  Best known for his Olympic title in Athens in 2004, Baldini also won bronze medals twice at IAAF World Championships marathons in 2001 and 2003, and was the European champion again in 2006.  In commercial marathons he’s made the podium in London three times, earned victories in Roma and Madrid, and still holds the Italian record of 2:07:22 set in London in 2006.  He’s broken 2:10 thirteen times.

But after finishing 12th at the Olympic Games marathon in Beijing in 2008, Baldini began the inevitable transition from contender to legend.  Revered in Italy where road race organizers know that his participation in their events means guaranteed media coverage, Baldini ran in a variety of races, picking up reliable appearance fees, but rarely challenging for victory.  He would often finish out of the top-10, and he stopped running marathons, completely.

“Yes it’s true,” said Baldini, now 39, of his decision to leave his days of competing seriously behind him.  “I decided in Beijing 2008 to stop my international career.”

Yet deep inside, Baldini’s competitive fire was still smoldering.  He decided late last year that he would run the European Championships one more time, and is on the entry list for the marathon here on Sunday.

“My coach, Luciano Gigliotti, ask me to try again,” Baldini explained.  “I still love running and have a goal to achieve and I am the reigning European champion.”

He had planned to run a spring marathon to test himself and went to Kenya to train over the winter to get ready.  But a leg injury derailed his plans.

“I went to Iten four weeks in January/February for training, but a big injury in my left ham (the tendon under the glute was partially broken) stopped the preparation,” Baldini said.  “After a four weeks’ stop I started again in April.  The shape now is OK.”

Baldini competed in the Italian half-marathon championships at the end of May, finishing sixth in a modest 1:04:57.  Then on June 15, he went to a high altitude (1800m) training camp with the rest of the Italian marathon team in Livigno, Italy, about 35 kilometers from St. Moritz.

Marathoner Giovanni Ruggiero, who is not on the team but whose girlfriend Deborah Toniolo is, was in the camp acting as their official chef.  He said that Baldini’s preparations for Barcelona were solid.

“It’s difficult because Stefano is a big friend of mine,” Ruggiero said in an interview in Sicily last week where he competed in the Giro di Castelbuono.  “I think he’s in good shape, but he is 39.  He can do a good race.  When he won the Olympic Games, it was 50% with the body and 50% with the brain.”

Baldini tried to play down his chances to make one last international medal here.

“I stay one month in Livigno in altitude, but it’s two years that I don’t run a marathon (and I am 39) so I have to stay in low profile.  I know that I am not the favorite.”

Baldini may be overly modest.  European marathon running for men is at a nadir, and Baldini’s experience is a significant advantage.  Iaroslav Musinschi, 33, of Moldova, who won the METRO Group Marathon Düsseldorf, has the fastest time of any European this year (2:08:32) and is the only European to break 2:10 this year.  But in his last championship marathon (World Championships in Berlin, 2009), he finished 41st in 2:21:18.  Austrian steeplechaser Günther Weidlinger, 32, has a personal best of 2:10:47 from Frankfurt in 2009, but struggled to finish in his other two marathons.  Spain’s José Manuel “Chema” Martínez has a 2:08:09 personal best, but he ran that time more than seven years ago and is 38 years-old now.  Switzerland’s Viktor Röthlin, 35, the silver medallist from these championships in 2006, has been plagued by a series of health problems and has not yet returned to top form.

And then there’s the weather.  Barcelona’s heat and humidity aren’t conducive to marathon running, but Baldini has run well in those conditions, especially in Athens when he won the gold.

“No pressure going into Barcelona at the moment,” Baldini commented.  “It will depend also from other Italian results (in the rest of the Championships).  But as I say before, I know I am not the big favorite in this race, but also that my conditions are OK to do well in the heat.”

Baldini’s daughter, Alesya, will not be at the race here Sunday, but she will be watching from home.  Her athletics career is just beginning.

“Now she is nine years-old,” Baldini said.  “She watch all races outside Italy on TV, and for Barcelona it will be the same. This year she ran two cross country and in the future will try long jump.”