In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
In episode two, after arriving in Ulaanbataar, I meet mysterious Mr. Batar, who delivers me a rugged Toyota Land Cruiser. On an early Saturday morning, I and my British workmate Mark leave the town; throughout the whole day, we will explore a scarcely inhabited territory while trying not to lose our track. We also become familiar with the solid beauty of Mongolian horses, roaming free in the wildland.
Being right there
In the movie The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller plays a middle-class man, trapped in a 9 to 5 job he does not like anymore. For a succession of unforeseen circumstances, one day he quits his office and embarks on an adventure on the tracks of Sean O’Connell, a legend photographer who disappeared while hunting the animal whose image no-one has ever captured, the snow leopard.
Walter Mitty: When are you going to take it [the snow leopard shot]? Sean O’Connell: Sometimes I don’t. If I like a moment, for me, personally, I don’t like to have the distraction of the camera. I just want to stay in it. Walter Mitty: Stay in it? Sean O’Connell: Yeah. Right there. Right here. It’s gone [the snow leopard]
In the strange days we live, when was last time we were “right there”? How much “right there” experience we allow ourselves in one of our average weeks? Are those moments something we look forward to, or we prefer to escape them and comfortably choose the distraction, being it social networks, messengers, noise, other people opinions, scary news on TV, information overflow, a job that does not excite us…
And so we are, me and Mark, my British workmate, in a place named Gun-Galuut, in Mongolia. For a whole day, we have been breathing fresh air and wandering across the vast grassland. Since the moment we entered the Nature Reserve, every trace of human presence has vanished. We continue venturing deeper into this unknown territory, using the profile of the hills or the clouds in the sky to locate ourselves and hoping we will be able to find our way back. All around us, Mongolian horses roam peaceful and free.
Horsemen and a herd of Mongolian horses
Mountains in Gun Galuut Nature Reserve
The sky over Gun Galuut Nature Reserve
A herd of horses passing by a Ovoo
A horseman in traditional attire
Horses watering at a affluent of Kherlen river
The track becomes rougher and now insinuates at the feet of low promontories, covered with sharp rock fragments. Afternoon sun is going down and the lights around us change, giving the landscape a more dramatic pitch. I decide to look for a viewpoint and see on our left a steep path leading to the edge of a higher hill, possibly accessible to our Toyota. The full power of our four-wheel drive is barely sufficient to climb our way to the top. The car pants and progresses slowly as we gain altitude and approach the end of the ascent. Finally, we get there; I stop the car, turn off the engine, pull the handbrake and get off, followed by Mark. We are on level ground now: in front of us, the upwards path that took us there finishes into a vertical rocky wall. On the right, at a distance of about fifty meters, we see a natural terrace ending on a cliff top and I start walking in that direction, instinctively attracted by the panoramic opening.
As I get closer, my point of view changes and a chain of mountains starts to appear at a great distance. I am maybe twenty meters away when I see the horse and, at first, I do not understand. He lays on the ground, on a side, you would tell that he sleeps but he is dead. It had to happen not long before, as the hair is still shiny and the body is in a perfect state, except for a little scar on the head, probably caused by a scavenger bird.
Now I am just next to the dead horse and appreciate the harmony of his figure. While I walk around him, the first thing that awakens irrational thoughts is the position of the body. It lies exactly at the middle of the half-circle shaped terrace; his head looks at the view opening from the height of the cliff on hundreds of kilometers of emptiness.
I look at Mark, who has not made it to the terrace and is standing a dozen meters away, staring in my direction.
The second thing is the ascent and how hard I had to push the Land Cruiser in order to get there. For a dying animal, that had to be a hell of an effort.
The wind blows and the sun has gone down; the air is chilled now.
The third thing is the dead horse position, the effort to get there, the absolute majesty of the landscape.
I keep turning slowly around him, observing the scene from many angles, immersed in my thoughts. The view in front of me is the most beautiful I have ever seen. Far ahead, hundreds of identical peaks, crowned by bright white clouds rise up to the sky. The physical space between the dead horse and the mountains is an immense empty prairie where the animal lived in freedom from the very moment he first stood on the ground to his last day when he decided to climb there and look at all that again from a height.
As I continue standing right there, in front of that mystical scene, lights and composition remind me the most accomplished Caravaggio paintings. I have my camera with me, in my backpack and I am looking at award-winning photography material but there is something bigger around me on that cliff and I just want to stay in it.
I look at the horse for the last time, then I look at the far away mountains, turn around and walk away. When I pass by Mark, he follows me and asks: “What do we do?”. I can only tell: “We go home, man. We go home now”.
In episode one, when told that I was going to Mongolia to meet some airline executives for my job, I decided to lose myself in the silent wilderness of that country. Before leaving I did some rough research and chose as destination a place that even Google Maps fails to locate, named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
I have an appointment with Mr. Batar, from Drive Mongolia, the car rental company, at Shangri-La hotel in Ulaanbataar. When I arrive there from dinner, I notice the Land Cruiser and my man, waiting for me on the door. Batar is a cool dude, his fancy hat and turtle round glasses give him the looks of a Mongolian dandy. After a vigorous handshake, he proposes me to inspect the car, so we walk to the rugged four-wheeler. At a first glance, the Toyota had a fairly good life, one full of adventure but not too harsh. Mr. Batar shows me how to start the engine and that’s it; he seems happy and ready to leave. When I tell him that I am going to Gun-Galuut, he understands that the Land Cruiser is going for an hard-core day and gives me the second chapter of explanation: he shows me how to operate the electric winch on the front bumper, the spare tire, the hydraulic jack and all I needed in case of trouble. Then he looks at me, shakes my hand again and says: “Anyway, I know you can drive”.
I ask Batar how to reach my destination; he takes a map out of the Toyota gloves compartment and points to a spot in the middle of nowhere: “Follow the road, East direction – he says – when you get to the river, turn right. When you see the mountains on your left, go there”. I thank him and ask if there is something I should be aware of driving in Mongolia. Mr. Batar looks at me again and says: “do not drive over a goat. If you kill a goat you’ll have to pay for it”, then he hands me the car keys, wishes me a good trip, turns around and disappears into the fresh night. At no point, he has bothered to check my identity or driving license.
Comes Saturday and after an early breakfast, I meet my co-pilot, in the hotel lobby. Mark is a British workmate, he lives in Bangkok. The night before, he enthusiastically accepted to join in the adventure. When we get in the car I ask him if he knows how to drive an off-road car; he tells me that he has driven once or twice in the past ten years. I start the engine and here we are, cruising through a sleepy Ulaanbataar, direction East. It is seven o’clock in the morning, streets are empty and the sun shines. As the kilometers go by, tall concrete buildings become sparser and are gradually replaced by single-storey constructions. A little later, Mongolian Gers, the local dwellings, start becoming more and more frequent.
The paved road in the direction of Baganuur is comfortable. I relax at the drive of the Land Cruiser and observe the changing landscape passing slowly by. After an hour, we arrive at the Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue. The 40 meters tall shining complex is a monument to exaggeration but serves the purpose of reminding whoever passes by that the fusion between the war chief and the horse, allowed Genghis Khan to federate the biggest empire in the history of humanity.
We start a slow ascent towards a mountain pass, now the road and the lineup of electric posts that flank it are the only visible signs of human presence. While we keep driving East we become acquainted with the sight of wild horses. They have compact bodies, long tail and mane and most often brown and shiny hair; Mongolian horses are known for their strength and at every winter can lose up to 30% of their weight due to intense cold. Beautiful and admirable animals.
The few signs along the road, all written in Cyrillic, do not provide us any workable information but, according to the map, we have approximately reached the point where we are supposed to leave the main road. We just take a 90-degrees turn and start driving straight in a vast grassland. A huge mineral mine on our right-hand side is the only landmark we use to navigate the otherwise completely empty space. As time passes, the sense of freedom is gradually replaced by doubts on our direction but there is no-one around to help us find our way. Finally, I see in the rear-view mirror a guy wearing traditional Mongolian attire on a motorbike. I stop the car, get off and he comes to meet me: I show him our destination on my mobile phone, only to realize that he can not read Latin characters or understand English. I keep saying “Gun-Galuut”, trying to pronounce the way I imagine a Mongolian would do and finally, our man understands and points in direction South-East. I exchange a dubitative look with Mark, then look at the guy smiling. He smiles back to me and makes a vague gesture spinning his forefinger around. I go back in the car and turn the key while the guy kick-starts his motorbike. My coworker asks me what is happening and I explain to him that we will follow our friend; he seems puzzled by the non-verbal communication that just happened.
Our Mongolian guide drives fast ahead of us. From time to time he steers his motorbike right into a bump and enjoys a jump. After some time he stops and so we do. I get out of the car and go close to him. He gives a look at South, makes a sign with his hand as if he was putting a glass close to his lips, then looks at the high rocky hills at South East and smiles. I smile, put my hands together and slightly bow my head to thank him for his help. He starts his bike and goes away, headed West. When I get in the car, Mark seems more puzzled than ever as he asks me what we’re doing next. I look at him and say: “the guy told me to keep going until we find a Ger where we could be offered fermented horse milk, then we have to take a left turn and climb the mountains”. My coworker now clearly believes that I lost my mind but after a few minutes driving, we find one lonely Ger; a shy girl hears the noise of our engine, comes out and confirms, non-verbally of course, that the high hills we see on our left are the entry gate of Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve.
Horsemen and a herd of Mongolian horses
Genghis Khan Equestrian Statue
Horses watering at a affluent of Kherlen river
A Mongolian ger on the road to Baganuur
Horses watering at a affluent of Kherlen river
Mountains in Gun Galuut Nature Reserve
Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve – satellite view
A shepherd resting
As we make our way into it, we realize that the notion of Nature Reserve in Mongolia is different from what we have seen elsewhere: this is not yet another man-made attraction park. There is no dedicated structure, ranger, patrol car, no entrance gate or fee, not a single road. No-one explains what you will see. There is nothing to explain and the situation could not be clearer: nature owns the place and man is a very rare species.
The travel becomes adventurous: we test the power of Toyota engine to climb a low ridge and look at the panoramic landscape. Snow just finished melting and the yellow ground reverberates against the pristine blue of the sky. Then, we descend and drive close to one of the affluents of the Kherlen, where a herd of Mongolian horses is peacefully watering. The animals let us come close and observe us with curiosity. They seem familiar with human presence and show no visible stress. I take some pictures and get back in the car.
We abandon the river bank to continue driving in East direction, following a track that softly ascends a hill. As we start sloping down, we see a more prominent trace of human presence: an agglomeration of eight Mongolian Gers, ordered in two lines of four, too neatly organized to be a nomad thing, enclosed by a wooden fence. As we park the car at the front gate, a tall man with a bright red sweater comes to meet us, smiling; he is the owner of the Ger camp and surprisingly speaks a very good English. Mr. Batbold is a biologist, a conservationist and a very busy man: during the winter, the temperature in Mongolian steppe can drop well below -40 degrees Celsius. The camp is open all year and when the snow finally melts, our host has very few days to repair all the scars that ice caused to the infrastructures. Also, he needs to install eight more Gers on their round concrete slabs, to double the camp capacity and revenues during the summer season.
While we have lunch at the ger camp, Mr. Batbold tells about the species of birds and other animals that populate the reserve, then he advises us to continue our exploration towards the mountains. We thank him for the hospitality and get in the Toyota again.
The camp disappears from our views, driving becomes challenging whenthe path crosses very bumpy sections and I do my best to reduce the discomfort. The landscape around us changes but remains magnificent: lowlands around the Kherlen river gradually morph into hills covered with bright green grass, where goats peacefully graze. Another spring has arrived and the cycle of life perpetuates: all creatures have a few months to recover and build up sufficient energies to survive next winter.
As we glide slowly through this eternal countryside scene, shepherds go up and down the hills, riding their horses with mastery. From time to time, falcons float in the air above our heads. In the total absence of distraction, my thoughts slow down, crystallize, melt with the environment, capture slight changes in the air. Time has stopped here: our Land Cruiser is the only visible sign of modern civilization, the rest would have looked exactly the same if we passed by five hundred years ago.
What happens next?
In episode three we will reach the end of the adventure. We will also have an intimate conversation with a legendary photographer who will tell us what it means to be “right there”.
This is, among other things, a travel story. It is about two trips to Mongolia that I did in January and April 2017. As the story is long, I decided to break it into three parts, for an easier reading. I will publish the following two parts on Mondays, at an interval of two weeks.
Where I am coming from
I do not always feel comfortable in modern times because today society and lifestyle tear us continuously apart from what really counts. I feel that we invest a lot of time, money, energy, striving to achieve objectives that do not make us happy. Finding joy in a world that surrounds us with noise and buries us in clutter is not a simple exercise.
In the past, these feelings materialized in a sense of frustration. With time, I learned to focus on what makes a difference for me. I am happy when my dear ones have what they need to live the life they want. I am good when I am surrounded by positive people, when someone cares about me. I like when the wind blows freely, waves crash on a sandbank, the sun sets on the sea. This is all I believe in, the rest does not count.
Combining my personal beliefs with a sustainable job is easier said than done. I would like to do something that inspires people and transform the world into a better place; Today, I am falling short on these objectives but no-one is perfect.
Instead, I work in a company that provides Information Technology solutions to airlines; in my day to day working life, I speak to very different people sharing a common mission: flying aircrafts around the globe. I travel and learn a lot and one day maybe I will find a way to make good use of these experiences. Recently, I heard a quote in the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty“, that seemed a nice way to reconcile my job and my quest for happiness. It says: “To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other, and to feel. That is the purpose of life”. I would argue that life does not need another purpose than being lived every day at the best of our possibilities. Still, the quote sounds overall right.
So as I said, this is, among other things, a travel story.
In January 2017, my work brought me to spend two days in Ulaanbaatar to meet local airline executives. In my imaginary map of the world, before that short trip, Mongolia occupied an unreachable corner: I read many stories and had seen countless images of its open spaces, where horses roamed free and nomadic populations continued migrating on ancestral routes. The day I flew there, I remember hearing the call of the wild as the Boeing 737 approached the landing strip: I was stuck at the plane window looking at the land below. It was white, endless, breath-taking. One day I ventured out for a short walk outside with my workmates; the sun was shining in a wonderful blue sky and the temperature was -36 degrees Celsius. A memorable moment.
When three months later I was sent back to Mongolia, the call resonated again and I decided to listen. Instead of preparing the business meetings, I spent the days before my departure dreaming of a day trip into the wild: at least for a short while, I wanted to get modern life distractions out of my way.
As I started thinking of logistics, one thing appeared sure: if I wanted to explore Mongolia outback, I needed a reliable car; I remembered the advice of a French friend, who crossed the Sahara desert many times and sailed all oceans; he owns four Toyota Land Cruiser and always told me he would trust his “Toys”, as he called them, under all circumstances. Alcohol addiction shrank his horizons that today are constrained in the slim volume of a “verre a Pastis”, but this is another story and I prefer to think of him as the brave captain he used to be.
White, endless, breath-taking – January 2017
My Toyota Land Cruiser climbing
Ulaanbataar airport – January 2017
Approaching Ulaanbataar – April 2017
After a quick search, I got in touch with a woman named Deegi, who promised to rent me a Land Cruiser 76 in Ulaanbataar.
To pick a destination, I ruled out places recommended by all websites when searching for “day trip Ulaanbataar”. My attention was caught instead by Wikipedia very succinct description of a place named Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve:
“130 km (81 miles) southeast of Ulaanbaatar, has a great diversity of ecosystems even though it has a comparatively small area. The complex of high mountains, steppes, rivers, lakes and wetlands are kept in their original condition. Visitors to Gun-Galuut see vast steppes seeming to meet the sky, the imposing mountains of Baits and Berkh, the homeland of rare creatures, Ikh-Gun and Ayaga lakes, a paradise of birds, Kherlen, the longest river of Mongolia and the Tsengiin Burd wetland, where water and wetland birds lay their eggs.”
The call of the wild resonated more distinctly; when Google Maps failed to locate it, I knew that was the place I had been looking for.
A Toyota Land Cruiser 76 waiting for me in Ulaanbataar, I was headed to Gun-Galuut Nature Reserve. The dice were ready to roll.
What happens next?
In episode two, we will finally arrive in Ulaanbataar, meet a mysterious man and embark on an adventurous trip in the outback.
History reminds me of a river: in most days, sitting nearby a bridge, we could see it calmly flowing before our eyes. However, in times of storm and heavy rains, a bridge is where danger occurs.
Many years ago, I became very close to an adorable girl from a town named Mostar, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. During one of our nocturne conversations, that often took place facing the Mediterranean while sitting on Nice old town pebbles beach, she told me the story of Mostar bridge.
Stari Most, “the old bridge” in English, was built in 1566 by Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of famous architect Mimar Sinan and stood for 427 years. Croats deliberately destroyed it using mortar shell bombing on 9 November 1993, during the ethnic conflict that opposed them to Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Sinan disciple engineered its aerial pull to last forever and statics laws prescribed it could only be annihilated by an equal and opposite push of human hate. By shattering the old bridge, Croats intended to eradicate memories of pacific co-existence of Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic populations living on the banks of Neretva river.
Between 1991 and 2001, several conflicts tore the territory of the former Republic of Yugoslavia leading to the death of approximately 130000 persons. It all happened a few kilometers away from our borders: in Puglia we saw F104 taking off from Italian air force bases, ready to bomb Serbian positions during Kosovo war and rockets were deployed on our beaches in protection from retaliation.
I did not understand such slaughter: Yugoslavia was a developed and prosperous country that colonel Tito managed to steer firmly for almost forty years after the end of World War II, navigating through cold war perils while maintaining peace among many different ethnic populations living within its borders.
Artillery had been silenced for a while at the time when I read the novel. I found there answers to all my questions about wars in ex-Yugoslavia: stories of the generations living near Višegrad bridge were the best illustration of how Bosnia-Herzegovina was cursed by both history and geography, condemned to be one of the sharpest friction points between Arab and European civilizations, “impersonated” in that region by Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. My Bosnian ex-girlfriend mom used to say that in Balkans every generation has to live through three wars; according to this rule current generations are safe, what about the future ones?
Few writers reached Ivo Andrić heights in representing events that shaped Western world history and among them I surely count Ernest Hemingway, one of my youth literary heroes. Talking about bridges, “Old man at the bridge”, first published in May 1938 and later included in “The first forty-nine short stories“, is a little shining literary gem where, in purest Hemingway style, no word is redundant. Bridges are a great writers affair.
Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad
Robert Capa – Falling soldier
Stari most in Mostar
The girl that opens this story on a beach in Dalmatia
Ivo Andrić at Višegrad bridge
Ernest Hemingway with fighters of Spanish civil war
Puente Nuevo in Ronda
Old man at the bridge
An old man with steel rimmed spectacles and very dusty clothes sat by the side of the road. There was a pontoon bridge across the river and carts, trucks, and men, women and children were crossing it. The mule-drawn carts staggered up the steep bank from the bridge with soldiers helping push against the spokes of the wheels. The trucks ground up and away heading out of it all and the peasants plodded along in the ankle deep dust. But the old man sat there without moving. He was too tired to go any farther.
It was my business to cross the bridge, explore the bridgehead beyond and find out to what point the enemy had advanced. I did this and returned over the bridge. There were not so many carts now and very few people on foot, but the old man was still there.
“Where do you come from?” I asked him.
“From San Carlos,” he said, and smiled.
That was his native town and so it gave him pleasure to mention it and he smiled.
“I was taking care of animals,” he explained. “Oh,” I said, not quite understanding.
“Yes,” he said, “I stayed, you see, taking care of animals. I was the last one to leave the town of San Carlos.”
He did not look like a shepherd nor a herdsman and I looked at his black dusty clothes and his gray dusty face and his steel rimmed spectacles and said, “What animals were they?”
“Various animals,” he said, and shook his head. “I had to leave them.”
I was watching the bridge and the African looking country of the Ebro Delta and wondering how long now it would be before we would see the enemy, and listening all the while for the first noises that would signal that ever mysterious event called contact, and the old man still sat there.
“What animals were they?” I asked.
“There were three animals altogether,” he explained. “There were two goats and a cat and then there were four pairs of pigeons.”
“And you had to leave them?” I asked.
“Yes. Because of the artillery. The captain told me to go because of the artillery.”
“And you have no family?” I asked, watching the far end of the bridge where a few last carts were hurrying down the slope of the bank.
“No,” he said, “only the animals I stated. The cat, of course, will be all right. A cat can look out for itself, but I cannot think what will become of the others.”
“What politics have you?” I asked.
“I am without politics,” he said. “I am seventy-six years old. I have come twelve kilometers now and I think now I can go no further.” “This is not a good place to stop,” I said. “If you can make it, there are trucks up the road where it forks for Tortosa.”
“I will wait a while,” he said, “and then I will go. Where do the trucks go?”
“Towards Barcelona,” I told him.
“I know no one in that direction,” he said, “but thank you very much. Thank you again very much.”
He looked at me very blankly and tiredly, then said, having to share his worry with some one, “The cat will be all right, I am sure. There is no need to be unquiet about the cat. But the others. Now what do you think about the others?”
“Why they’ll probably come through it all right.” “You think so?”
“Why not,” I said, watching the far bank where now there were no carts.
“But what will they do under the artillery when I was told to leave because of the artillery?”
“Did you leave the dove cage unlocked?” I asked. “Yes.”
“Then they’ll fly.”
“Yes, certainly they’ll fly. But the others. It’s better not to think about the others,” he said.
“If you are rested I would go,” I urged. “Get up and try to walk now.”
“Thank you,” he said and got to his feet, swayed from side to side and then sat down backwards in the dust.
“I was taking care of animals,” he said dully, but no longer to me. “I was only taking care of animals.”
There was nothing to do about him. It was Easter Sunday and the Fascists were advancing toward the Ebro. It was a gray overcast day with a low ceiling so their planes were not up. That and the fact that cats know how to look after themselves was all the good luck that old man would ever have.
Ernest Hemingway had a passion for Spain and a long time ago inspired me for a 5000 Kilometers drive through Andalusia and Algarve, two regions that, despite being in the heart of Christian Europe, were ruled for centuries by Moors and went under the name of Al-Andalus. Spanish Catholic kings finally conquered back Al-Andalus but for long the lower part of Iberic Peninsula, likewise Balkans, was a perilous bridge between civilizations. During my road trip, I walked across the bridge that joins the two parts of Ronda and was impressed by its daring architecture. This story started flowing under the stones of the old bridge in Mostar and comes to its end on Puente Nuevo in Ronda; The great Sinan would have loved it.
This is the second of two blog posts about Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
In Once were heroes… shining stars, we revisited the stories of Usain Bolt, Joseph Schooling and Micheal Phelps, maybe the most memorable Rio heroes, that combined for a total of 9 gold medals.
All medals have a reverse and Olympic ones make no exception: while the three men I just named ascended the highest heights of sports glory, four girls were hiding in a dark corner at the opposite end of the trajectory, sharing a tale of falls and painful defeats.
It is now time to look at the other side and into the life of few athletes whose names are not to be found on Rio Olympic champions lists.
Falls – Part I
Pole vaulting is a raffinate exercise of subtlety. In order to excel, an athlete has to perfectly control every fraction of his body and mind, while melting together speed, precision, grace, power, guts, iron muscles, lightness. In no other track and field specialty, a human body falls from a higher height than pole vault.
Yelena Isinbayeva jumped thousands of times in the long decade where she dominated this discipline and was trained to fall like no other. Nevertheless, the fall she had to experience while preparing for Rio, was of a kind she never endured before. A kind that hurts badly.
Nothing in Yelena childhood and family background anticipated that she would become one of the most successful athletes ever. Born from a humble family, her father is a plumber, her mother a shop assistant, she approached sports at the age of 5, when her parents enrolled her in gymnastics in her hometown Volgograd, Russia. At that time, they both worked full time and were looking for a way to keep Yelena busy.
She trained as a gymnast until at the age of 15 she attained the height of 1.74 meters and became too tall to be competitive in gymnastics. One day, her coach suggested she tried track and fields and pole vault but Yelena objected that she had never heard of such discipline. Her coach told her that if she did not like it, she did not have to continue. She ended up listening to the advice and her brilliant career was started.
Yelena Isinbayeva was undefeated for almost six consecutive years between 2004 and 2009, establishing an amazing 30 world records along the way. She was the first woman to pass the mythical bar of 5 meters, both indoor and outdoor and improved the world record by a total 24 centimeters. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) in 2004, 2005 and 2008.
Many coaches analyzed Yelena jumps and observed that what sets her apart from any other woman specialist is her exemplary mastering of the so-called “L-Phase”, where it is vital to use the pole’s rebound to convert horizontal speed into height. They credited her gymnastic background for such a better gesture. Yelena explained her approach to pole vaulting with simpler words: “I like that I can control my body” she said once. “I like to fly. I like those feelings when you’re over the bar. It’s more beautiful than other track and field events.”
Yelena Isinbayeva jumping
Yelena Isinbayeva looking for concentration
Yelena Isinbayeva preparation
Yelena Isinbayeva passing the bar
I witnessed one of her world records a summer night in Monaco in 2008, where she raised the bar to 5.04 meters and passed it. Yelena is a very communicative athlete: I remember that night her eyes full of joy and absolute determination.
In an unconventional move for an athlete of her caliber, who can easily make several hundred thousands of dollars at each appearance, in 2010 Isinbayeva decided to take a break from competitions.
She came back one year later, to face a fiercer pool of opponents. After conquering a bronze medal in 2012 London Olympic games she started cultivating the wish of a retirement in style, after Rio Olympics, a gold medal around her neck.
Another couple of years passed, Isinbayeva took another break to give birth to her daughter Eva in June 2014. In December of that same year another member of Russian athletics team, Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, appeared in a documentary on German television uncovering a large-scale doping fraud: Russian athletics officials supplied banned substances in exchange for 5% of athletes earnings and falsified tests together with doping control officers. Successive investigations revealed implication of Russian government, RUSADA (Russia anti-doping agency), secret services, WADA (World anti-doping agency), IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations). Two former directors of RUSADA died in 2016; one of them had just approached the newspapers telling that he would publish a book on Russia state doping.
The scandal eventually led International Olympic Committee to ban all Russian track and field athletes from 2016 Rio Olympic games. In August 2016, WADA reported that Yuliya Stepanova’s account, containing confidential information like her personal address, had been hacked while no other athlete profile had been accessed. Stepanova and her husband had fled Russia after appearing on German television in 2014; after giving a fundamental contribution to the fight to re-establish transparency in sports, today they seek asylum in foreign countries and fear for their lives. They have been completely abandoned by sports institutions.
The ban was the sunset of Yelena Isinbayeva Olympic dreams: she was denied the possibility to compete, despite a spotless 14 years career where she never tested positive to an anti-doping examination. In a press conference, she said: “I will never agree with, and never forgive, my exclusion from the Olympics”. Paradoxically, being banned as a result of a doping scandal, she has been elected by fellows to serve an 8-year term on the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission.
After Rio, during the Russian nationals, Yelena Isinbayeva posted the 2016 world leading jump of 4.90m and finally announced retirement.
Falls – Part II
The problem, in sports today, is that often the show on display on our TVs is pure fiction. We pretend to believe that what we see is real, but we know that it’s not true. Athletes take forbidden substances that enhance their performances and in doing so are covered by organizers, sponsors, sports institutions, that all happily sing with one voice “the show must go on”. Illegal betting alters results of football, tennis and many others sports worldwide.
From the very moment sponsors and television money invited themselves to the party and started crunching sportsmanship ideals, the race between doping and anti-doping technologies is as intense as the chase to new records.
The reality is that Russian athletes banned from Rio 2016 track and field were not the only cheats. Others have been unmasked during the games, many have probably gone uncaught, some will fall and will have to return their medals in the years to come when anti-doping tests will be repeated on samples collected in Rio. In this situation, believing in sports today is almost impossible.
The episode has become iconic, but I wish to recall it to those who missed it.
Heat 2 of women 5000 meters. Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin line up with favorite Almaz Ayana to chase a place in the final. In the second part of the race, while athletes are grouped in a confused bunch, the two girls collide and crash on the blue track.
Hamblin remembers: “(one moment after the fall I was down, thinking) What’s hit me? Why am I on the ground? And then suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder, like, ‘Get up, get up! We have to finish this!’ And I was like, ‘Yep, you’re right. It’s the Olympic Games. We have to finish this!’ ”.
The voice was D’Agostino’s who jumped back on her feet and was about to restart running when she saw that Hamblin was still not moving. Nikki raised herself and the two girls resumed the race, but D’Agostino was clearly hurting and soon collapsed again. This time, Hamblin was there to lend a hand.
4 and 1/2 laps, almost 2000 meters, were still to go. Hamblin injury being way less serious than D’Agostino’s, Nikki passed the finishing line well behind the other athletes, in 16:43.61. Exhausted, she turned around and saw D’Agostino staggering down the track; Abbey finally crossed the line at the last place, more than two minutes after the winner, with a time of 17:10.02.
Nikki Hamblin waited for Abbey D’Agostino on the finish line, passed her arms around the other’s neck, then the two girls cried together.
Abbey D’Agostino had run for more than two kilometers with a torn cruciate ligament and was in too much pain to leave the track on her own feet. When race officers urged for a wheelchair Nikki helped Abbey to sit down and kept looking at her as she was carried away.
“I’m so impressed and inspired that she did that” Hamblin later declared and her words are the best possible end of the story.
The metaphorical medal that Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin won in Rio is more precious than Schooling, Bolt and Phelps ones and even more deserved than the one denied to Yelena Isinbayeva. It is a medal made of transparent, clean and fresh air, a substance that in today sports is much more needed and rare than gold.
Original images of this sportsmanship tale can be found here. Watch them, they are really refreshing.
National football championships replaced badminton, Judo and synchronized swimming on our TVs and sport fans habits are back to normal routines. However, how amazing it is, every four years, to observe sports stop worldwide, as stars athletes move in the Olympic village along with perfect unknowns and compete for the same objective! Olympic Games are a comet: a bright periodic collision between ideals of sport and reality of money.
In this cycle of two posts, I will take you through the stories of a handful of Olympic heroes, examples of talent and dedication that enlightened Rio nights. Today I start with two phenomenal athletes, bearing destiny in their names.
Catch me if you can
Boltnoun(LIGHTNING): a flash of lightning that looks like a white line against the sky
“I am a living legend”, Usain Bolt said at a press conference on 12th of August 2016, after dominating the 200 meters final in Rio and no one could really argue. The statement came just before the curtain fell on his last Olympics, enshrined by Jamaican relay team win in 4*100, leading Bolt to his third triple-gold medal.
As of today, Usain Bolt has nine gold medals in Olympic Games, 11 in Athletics World championships; he holds the world record in 100m, 200m and 4*100m. Before him, no sprinter had even come close to such records, and the one that will equal such performances is probably not born yet.
Usain is today 30 years old and the remaining of his athlete career is likely to be a sweet celebration of his legendary gestures, a few more displays of his trademark lightning sign, retirement and immediate induction into track and field hall of fame, a “best of all times” tag close to his name.
Usain Bolt – catch me if you can
Usain Bolt sprinting
An amazing time by Usain Bolt
Usain Bolt 100m word record in Berlin 2009 world championship
Usain Bolt trademark lightning sign
After his tenure is over, will his records be what we’ll remember best of Usain Bolt?
History will tell but, besides his monster performances, the Jamaican surely deserves to be remembered for the way he turned track and field sprint disciplines upside down. From the very first moment he appeared on the running track, all in him seemed to be coming from another world, starting from his features making him better suited for volley or basketball than sprint. Usain is 1.95m and, while his competitors are often short and very compact, he is slim and abnormally tall. His reaction times, not the best in class, and his body structure slightly handicapped him in his late days in 100m. On the other hand, his unusual height makes him simply unbeatable in the 200m, once he can fully develop his speed.
Usain Bolt persona is unusual too, to say the least. Before him, sprinters used to be arrogant, nervous, and unapproachable. When the Jamaican appeared on the scene, he started a carnival of his own: he would smile and play with cameras in the most terrifying moments, just before Olympics 100m starter gunshot. During the race, he would relax, slow down, hit his chest in a dominating sign, turn and look around, all before the finish line. Then he would smile, again and again. In case you missed it, give a look to Rio 200m semi-finals finishing and appreciate how Usain plays with Andre De Grasse in a hilarious “catch me if you can” movie remake.
The show is not over, yet, but the end is coming closer. After Usain Bolt retirement grim athletes will likely take possession of sprint again and world-class athletics will no longer be as fun. He has been the fastest but also one of the coolest dudes on Earth and for almost a decade he managed to make us believe that 100m in around nine seconds is as easy as a smile.
Maybe this is the biggest lightning Bolt legacy.
23 to 1
School verb[ T ]: to train a person or animal to do something
I have been living in Singapore for almost three years and, since I moved here, I am intrigued and fascinated by this small country. What startles me most is how everything is carefully planned and relentlessly executed.
This systematic approach led Singapore to great achievements: the country is today a full-scale lab where social, technological, economic experiments happen every month, most of the time ending up in an improvement of collective conditions of living. Of course, the medal has a dark side, but I am not going to talk about it in this post.
Before Rio, Singapore constant performance improvement score was not showing up at all in sports. After participating to 15 previous editions of the Games, Singapore Olympic medal count was stuck at a sad zero (gold medals), two (silver), two (bronze).
At the opposite side of Olympic success spectrum stood Michael Phelps, the almost unbeatable swimmer who, before lining up for his fifth Olympic games in Rio had already won an amazing 18 gold medals, holding the enviable title of most decorated Olympian of all times.
Joseph Schooling and Micheal Phelps at the end of 200m butterfly final
Joseph Schooling shows his gold medal
2008 – Joseph Schooling at the age of 13 meets Michael Phelps
Joseph Schooling and Michael Phelps on Rio podium
Allow me to roll back time to a morning in 2008 when U.S. swimming team visited a Singapore club where a 13-years old local kid, named Joseph Schooling, was training. Phelps was part of the team and back then had already won six gold medals, more Olympic metal than a talented athlete can dream of.
Schooling recalled that morning in a recent interview: “They came to the country club that I trained at, everyone just rushed up and was like “it’s Michael Phelps! It’s Michael Phelps!’ and I really wanted a picture … It was very early in the morning and I was so shocked, I couldn’t really open my mouth”.
After that morning, Phelps continued dominating the scene for the years to come: the only upset came from South African Chad Le Clos, who beat him in London 2012 Olympics 200 meters butterfly. After London, Phelps announced his retirement but came back in 2014, when he started preparing for next Olympics in Rio where he wished to right his wrong towards Le Clos.
One year after meeting Phelps, inspired by the American and supported by his family, Joseph Schooling, the young Singaporean, moved to the United States, first going to Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida before attending the University of Texas, where he became a member of the Texas Longhorns swimming team, one of the top collegiate swim programs. Across the years, Joseph underwent continuous improvement in butterfly style swimming. He easily qualified for Rio 2016 Olympics, where he was bound to meet Michael Phelps again, but this time, the encounter was set to happen in the pool.
While everyone was looking at the unfolding of rivalry between Phelps and Le Clos, an underrated Schooling dominated his 100m butterfly semifinals on 11th of August. When swimmers positioned themselves on the starting blocks again for the final the day after, Goliath (Phelps) was in lane 2 and David (Schooling) in lane 4.
Many know the end of the story: Schooling claimed the win against his personal hero Phelps in one of the most surprising Olympic results ever. He led the race from the start and in an unseen final rush, Phelps, Le Clos and László Cseh of Hungary, touched the wall together, exactly three-quarters of seconds later, clinching a collective silver medal.
During the victory lap after the race, Schooling turned to Phelps and said, “Dude this is crazy, out of this world, I don’t know how to feel right now”. Phelps smiled and simply replied, “I know”.
Upon his return to his country, Schooling, the first ever-Singaporean Olympic gold medalist, was acclaimed like a God. He received a prize of one Million Singapore dollars (~730000 US $) and a parade was organized to celebrate his glory.
Today Olympic gold medals count stands at 23 (for Phelps) against 1 (for Singapore), but for this little country, such a slim account could not taste sweeter.
This is the first post in my blog new “Role Models” category.
An Italian proverb goes more or less: “lucky is the country that does not need heroes” and I fully buy into it. Superheroes belong to Marvel comics and many strong political leaders, often sung by today “journalists”, routinely walk over worn out democracy rules. Nevertheless, being part of the big human race circus can be confusing and role models are reassuring when we fail to see with clarity. I turn to them when facing complex situations or my own contradictions, and ask myself: “what would HE do?”; the answer I get in return is usually the right one. I have very few, they are quite unconventional, and I am happy to introduce them to you. Of course you’re not obliged to admire them like I do.
Before we start
It is time to take a few stands and give some credits:
Number 1: I usually illustrate this blog articles with relevant photos, but in this case, images will be neutral. This story is about a war surgeon whose life mission is to repair broken human bodies. Navigating the web, I found lots of pics documenting effect of cruelty on men, women, kids, babies. Those images are disturbing and I do not intend to shock or wake morbid curiosity. World Wide Web is out there for those who feel the need to see more.
Number 2: I will not promote anything else than expressions of creativity, such as bands, movies, books, writers, photographs, on this blog. Period.
Number 3: Just to immediately contradict previous statement, at the end of the article you will find a link to a non governmental organization website. This is a one-off and I am doing it because maybe after reading the story, you will think that these guys need support.
Three years ago, the photographer Giles Duley walked into the Salam centre hospital in Sudan and was taken aback by what he saw. It was unlike any hospital he’d seen anywhere, let alone a country as desperate and chaotic as Sudan.
It performed world-class open-heart surgery free of charge, it was calm, ordered and spotlessly clean. “I mean absolutely spotless,” says Duley. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” At its centre was a beautiful garden. And there, in a corridor, he found the only unruly aspect of the entire operation: the man who created it all, a bearded, straggle-haired Italian called Gino Strada, leaning against a wall, chain-smoking.
In the studio in east London where Duley was photographing him for the Observer last week, Strada was still straggle-haired, still chain-smoking: “Though I can stay 10 hours at the table in the operating room and I don’t even think about a cigarette,” he says stepping outside to have a quick one between doing the interview and having his portrait taken. “I don’t even think about it until it’s over.”
The operating room is where Strada lives. He’s a surgeon, a heart-lung transplant surgeon by training, who should be living comfortably in some well-to-do Italian suburb, but who instead has devoted the past two-and-a-bit decades of his life to living uncomfortably in some of the worst places on earth.
Aged 65, when other men’s thoughts might turn to retirement, Strada spends months-long stints in Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan or any other of the 47 healthcare centres worldwide set up and run by Emergency, the NGO he founded. Although both Strada and Emergency are practically unknown in the UK, he has quietly got on with doing the world’s dirty work: Emergency provides free high-quality medical care for the victims of war, 90% of whom are civilians, and the majority of whom are poor and have nowhere else to go.
“We think everyone has the right to be cured,” he says with the air of a man who’s been saying the same thing for decades. But then he has been doing exactly that. Which in part explains the world-weariness that accompanies him like a particularly faithful dog. (“He may appear tired and cynical on the surface,” says Duley, “but underneath he never relents.”) Strada has seen the very worst the world has to offer.
Even the most committed doctors rarely manage more than a few months in a war zone. Strada has done years and years. Emergency, in its 18 years of existence, has treated 5 million people under some of the most dangerous conditions in the world. He personally has operated on 30,000 people; an almost unimaginable number, I say.”Yes, but I always find it very, very interesting. When I wake up in the morning, I’m happy to go to the hospital. When I worked in Milan and I woke up in Italy, I wasn’t that excited; it was more like a routine.”
Emergency is doing extraordinary work, and yet that is not the most extraordinary thing about it – not the thing that struck Duley so forcefully when he walked into the hospital in Khartoum. The Salam centre for cardiac surgery is not some bush hospital patching people together with sticking plaster and a couple of aspirin: it offers world-class free cardiac treatment to patients from across Africa. (Many of its patients are young: rheumatic fever, which is endemic in Sudan and neighbouring countries, destroys the heart valves and disproportionately affects children and teenagers.) It’s the only hospital of its type on the entire continent and Strada’s view, which challenges most people’s ideas about how “aid” works, is quietly revolutionary. He believes that Emergency’s hospitals need to equal if not better those in the west.
But nobody believes that, I say. No other organisation is saying this.
“If you think of medicine as a human right, then you cannot have some hospitals that offer sophisticated, very effective, hi-tech medicine,” he says, “and then go to Africa and think, ‘OK, here’s a couple of vaccinations and a few shots’. Do we think that we human beings, we are all equal in rights and dignity, or not? We say, ‘Yes, we are.'”
At Emergency, he says, “we want to establish good hospitals, but how good should a hospital be to be good?” After a lot of debate, they decided the measure should be: “if it’s good enough that you would be happy to have one of your family members treated in it”.
Emergency’s hospital in Sudan is so clean that infection rates aren’t just lower than in hospitals in the UK and the US, they’re “lower by a power of 10”. And the cardiac centre is just the first in what he hopes will be a network of these specialist hospitals, all centres of excellence, that will stretch across Africa, the next being a paediatric facility in Uganda, designed by his good friend, the Italian architect Renzo Piano.
Emergency Salam center for cardiac surgery
Emergency Pediatric Clinic, Darfur
There’s an almost Fitzcarraldoquality to Strada – the Werner Herzog film about the man who pulled a steamship over a hill in order to build an opera house in the Amazon jungle. People thought Strada was nuts “and worse” when he decided to build a cutting-edge, world-class cardiac hospital in the Sudanese desert. “They wrote all kinds of things about it and me in Italy.” But he did it anyway. A children’s hospital on the shores of Lake Victoria designed by the man who co-created the Pompidou centre is relatively straightforward in comparison.
But then Strada negotiated with the Taliban at a time when Nato said negotiating with the Taliban was impossible, in order to operate a hospital behind their frontlines. He considers himself a surgeon above all else and, as a surgeon, he just likes fixing things.
“Emergency is just not like any other NGO,” says Duley. “I’ve worked with so many of them, but it’s just profoundly different in the way it treats people with such dignity and such respect. The hospitals are such oases of calm, they’re incredible.”
It’s impossible not to make Duley a part of this story, because he has championed Strada and Emergency’s work. He’s passionate about getting their story heard. During his visit to the Salam centre in Sudan, Strada urged him to visit Afghanistan, which Duley did. While he was there, as we’ve covered previously in the Observer, he was blown up and lost both legs and one of his arms. (Strada feels terrible about this “though it’s incredible to see Giles now, how it’s just made him even more determined”.)
“I knew that the first story I did afterwards would get a lot of attention,” he said. “And, for that reason, I knew I wanted it to be about Emergency.” It’s only because of Duley’s urging that Strada has stepped out of the shadows, appearing at two events in London last week.
And there’s no doubt that Strada’s work deserves to be better known. In Afghanistan alone, it operates four hospitals and 34 clinics. It has opened three during the past month. Strada says that the Red Cross has pulled 95% of its personnel out of Afghanistan “now the war is over” and Nato forces have built not one civilian hospital. “And the war is not over! The fighting is getting closer and closer to Kabul.” The casualty figures were up last month, he says, by 40%. We went to war in Afghanistan. Our government did so on behalf of us the people. And it’s been left to a small Italian NGO to mop up our dirty work.
“It’s absolutely criminal… I mean, you know Nato forces, they have their own back-up system. Their own medical facilities. And for the population there is nothing left. And even more than that, the Afghan government has to record the cost of the services international aid organisations provide, so it’s going to pay in the end. Very few can afford treatment, and for all the others there’s nothing. Therefore, if you’re injured or you’re sick, you just die, period.”
Opening and running one of his hospitals for three years costs €3m (£2.5m – “or the cost of three western soldiers for a year”). Drones – the victims of which they’re seeing in increasing numbers, at least 40% of them children – are just another obscenity. “Particularly if you think that thousands of miles away someone is putting down a killing list. The Nobel peace prize is signing a killing list every week.”
What do you mean?
“I mean, President Obama. He’s personally signing a killing list. They have squads of assassins, professional assassins, who kill people. Is this the idea of justice of the new millennium, that someone gets killed because someone else decided this one deserves to be killed without a trial, without pause, without nothing? Just crazy, crazy. It’s another human way to wage war. It’s not a human one, but this one is particularly nasty and particularly cruel.”
But then Strada believes that war should be abolished. Abolished?
“It has to disappear from human history,” he says. “Same as slavery had to disappear from the human history… and today the concept of slavery is disturbing.”War should disturb us equally, he says. It makes absolutely no sense. “It’s very peculiar to the human race and it’s crazy because what you are destroying is humanity… When you operate on children and teenagers, you ask yourself what the hell do they have to do with war? I mean, these people, they don’t even know why a war is fought around them, and they don’t even know who’s fighting whom.”
He reserves his harshest judgment for “humanitarian wars”. “Whoever speaks about humanitarian war should be eligible for a long stay in a psychiatric institution. It’s complete nonsense. No matter what people say or think, the end result is that 90% of victims are civilians.”
There are few people who can talk with the moral authority of Strada. He has earned the right to be listened to. Few people have seen the things that he has. Far fewer have done anything about it. He challenges you to think differently about things you thought you knew about (the inevitability of war, the inequality of suffering) and simply refuses to accept the status quo.
Duley is right. The world-weariness is a front. And there are signs that the world is starting to notice a little. A documentary short about the Salam centre, Open Heart, was nominated for an Oscar this year and Strada found himself flying from Afghanistan to the Academy Awards. But, given the scale and scope of his work, it seems ludicrous that he’s not better known.
He travels continuously. He rents a house in Venice but is there for only a few weeks of the year, for only a few days at a time. He’s had open-heart surgery himself: a quadruple bypass after a heart attack he suffered while under fire from Saddam’s forces in Iraqi Kurdistan a number of years ago. And in 2009, his wife, Teresa, with whom he co-founded Emergency, died.
Has it been difficult continuing alone? “It has, although it might sound strange, but it gave a bit more strength because we didn’t want to waste everything that Teresa had given. She developed Emergency in Italy, and we now have 4,000 volunteers there, and these people decided to support Emergency’s work because of Teresa.”
His daughter, Cecilia, now continues her work, and Strada is back on the road. Don’t you ever think sometimes you should be at home in Venice tending your roses? “It’s a nice idea” – he says – “but I’m a surgical animal. I like to be in the operating room.” The roses will wait.
What did we learn?
Hearing a statement such as “war should be abolished” you might be tempted to dismiss Gino Strada as one among many idealists. But when the others go away and the noise of battlefield no longer resonates in your TV, he stays. He is to be found always in the same place, the operating room, fixing human bodies, living by his beliefs and helping others, most of the time in silence. It might not be possible to build a better world, but he is fighting hard every day not to make it too worse. Respect.
If you want to learn why Gino Strada launched an Emergency program in Cambodia, read Smile Cambodia on this blog.
Here you can learn more about Emergency and maybe help them.
Afghanistan, when the others go away is a short movie about one of Gino Strada ideas: bring medicine students to Afghanistan to complete their studies in a war hospital. The movie is captivating, but it contains disturbing images. Also, it is in Italian.