Pope Francis talked with Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport about the sporting life, his recollections of a sporting childhood, and what it means to be a real winner — including special praise for champion cyclist Gino Bartali, declared “Righteous among the Nations” in 2013.
Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sportpublished extracts of a broad-ranging interview with Pope Francis on Saturday, in which he reminisced about growing up on the pitch and at the soccer stadium — and on the basketball court — and shared a powerful story of how athletes can make a difference.
Pope Francis recalled learning of how the legendary cyclist, Gino Bartali — three-time Giro d’Italia victor and twice champion of the Tour de France — would ride from Florence to Assisi and back again during WWII, carrying forged documents that would help secure escape for hundreds of Jews in hiding.
Pope Francis said he learned of Bartali’s heroism during his visit to Yad Vashem in 2014, the year after Bartali had been recognized as one of the Righteous among the Nations for his heroism – which involved some craftiness along with courage.
“When Bartali was stopped and searched,” Yad Vashem recounts, “he specifically asked that his bicycle not be touched since the different parts were very carefully calibrated to achieve maximum speed.”
“It is said he helped some eight hundred Jews reach safety with their families,” Pope Francis said, “during the barbaries to which they were subjected.” Yad Vashem’s tribute to Bartali says that, after the war, the champion never spoke of his efforts. “He emphatically refused to be interviewed,” insisting that his conscience alone had moved him, hence that he wanted no documentary record of his exploits.
“[Bartali] would say, ‘We do good, we don’t talk about it – if not, what good is it?’ — and that right there is the story of a sportsman who left the world a little better than he found it.” – Pope Francis
Only when Sara Corcos — the official of the Centre for the Documentation of Contemporary Judaism (Centro di Documentazione Ebraica Contemporanea, CDEC) who sought to interview him — told Bartali that she was related to a family friend, Rabbi Nathan Cassuto, did Bartali reluctantly agree to speak.
“[Bartali] would say, ‘We do good, we don’t talk about it – if not, what good is it?’ — and that right there is the story of a sportsman who left the world a little better than he found it,” Pope Francis told the Gazzetta dello Sport.
There were other details in the interview, like how Pope Francis — known for his support of the San Lorenzo Athletic Club’s soccer team in Buenos Aires — also liked basketball.
His father played for the San Lorenzo basketball team, Pope Francis told the Gazzetta.
Pope Francis also remembered the legendary Diego Maradona — his fellow Argentinian — who died this past November, aged 60, of a heart attack.
“On the field,” said Pope Francis of Maradona, “he was a poet.”
“I recall with pleasure everything he did for Scholas Occurentes,” which Pope Francis founded in Argentina when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, which provides opportunities for meaningful education to hundreds of thousands of needy children all around the world.
“On the field,” said Pope Francis of Maradona, “he was a poet,” and, “a great champion, who gave joy to millions,” particularly in Argentina and in Naples, where Maradona played for several years from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, before personal scandals that impacted his performance and caused friction with club management. “He was also a very fragile man,” Pope Francis said.
Asked by the Gazzetta dello Sport about his hopes for 2021, Pope Francis responded: “My hope is quite simple — I can say it with the words written on a jersey I received — ‘Better a clean loss than a dirty win’. I wish it for all the world, not only for the sporting world,” he said. “That,” he went on to say, “is the best way to play the game of life, with one’s head held high.”
“May God grant us holy days,” Pope Francis offered. “Pray for me: that I might never stop training with God.”