Little was going well for Marcello Luigi Fiasconaro, the South African who, quite by design, runs for Italy. First, it took him almost two days to jet from Johannesburg to Los Angeles for last Saturday night's Sunkist Invitational Indoor Track Meet. Arriving at midnight Thursday, he stumbled sleepily from the plane and said that he was glad he only had to run a 440. "A what!" said Al Franken, the meet promoter, who had been at the airport since early afternoon. "We've got you running in an 880." After that, things worsened.
The next morning, following an uneventful seven-mile run with Fanie Van Zijl, the South African miler, and Coach Stewart Banner, Fiasconaro set off for a doctor's appointment in Burbank. "It's a 10-minute trip," said Franken, assigning his son Donald to drive Fiasconaro and Banner. An hour and a half later Donald, hopelessly lost in the maze of freeways, ran out of gas. Laughing, Fiasconaro dived from the car and pushed it to an exit ramp that, happily, was downhill and near a gas station.
"I thought he might get upset," said Donald. "But he just kept the radio on and sang all the way. Except when the girl pulled up alongside us at a traffic light and asked how to get to Westwood."
"Fantastic," said Fiasconaro, rolling down his window. "I didn't hear you. Where do you want to go?"
January 27, 1974
"To Westwood," said the girl, a beauty. "Do you know where it is?"
"Certainly," said the good-looking 25-year-old bachelor. "You just go up to the corner...no, you turn around and...well, I don't know. I'm from South Africa. Why don't you see if it isn't in Room 804 of the Sheraton-West Hotel."
"Goodby," said the girl.
"Hurry up, Donald," said Fiasconaro. "I've got to get back and call my girl in Charlotte, New York City. And there is a great movie on TV. Fantastic. First class. Super."
At the hotel he dived from the car. Fiasconaro rarely steps from a car. He dives head first, rolls over and then leaps to his feet. He's 6'3" and weighs 175 pounds, and with his long, slightly wild hair his automobile exits can be startling. Now erect, he headed for his room, the TV set and the telephone. He never turns a TV set off, day or night. "I don't want to wait for it to warm up," he explains. "A good movie might be on." He is a movie freak, preferring Westerns, but he will take what he can get. He ranks Clint Eastwood just a tad ahead of John Wayne and Steve McQueen.
In Room 804, Fiasconaro switched the dial on his warm TV set until he found a Jean Harlow movie. "I've seen it before. It's a bloody awful murder mystery," he said gaily. Then he picked up the phone, got information in New York City and asked for Charlotte.
"Charlotte who?" said the operator.
Between them, they decided his girl must live in Charlotte Center in upstate New York. Switching operators, he tried again. "Nobody lives there," the operator said. "It's a place people drive through. Maybe you want the Charleston Coast Guard Station. Is your girl in the Coast Guard?" That night Fiasconaro sadly told Miler Marty Liquori that his girl lived in a place that did not exist.
"Charlotte, New York?" said Liquori. "The only Charlotte I ever heard of is in North Carolina."
"That's it!" said Fiasconaro. "I made a little mistake. I'll go call her now." In North Carolina it was 2 a.m.
Meanwhile, Franken and Coach Banner were negotiating the distance of Saturday night's race. It was Banner, Scottish-born but now one of South Africa's top business executives, who discovered Fiasconaro's track talents in 1970. Banner was coaching a team in Capetown called the Celtic Harriers, and it had nowhere to run. Fiasconaro was playing rugby for a team called the Villagers, which was building a new athletic complex in the same city. Banner suggested that the clubs combine; the rugby players could run track in the off-season to stay in shape. The forces were joined.
Then 20, Fiasconaro entered a 100-meter race as a lark and won in 11 seconds flat. Next he ran 200 meters in 23.6. Three months later he ran his first 400 in 48.5. "I could see the tremendous potential," says Banner.
So could the Italians. In 1971, just before the European Championships, they invited Fiasconaro to compete for Italy. He was qualified; his father, an opera singer, was in the Italian air force during World War II and was shot down over North Africa. He took three bullets in his back, one of which is still there. Captured, he was taken to a POW camp in South Africa.
"When the war ended, they sent the prisoners home," said Fiasconaro. "But my father got a hernia. He stayed for an operation, met my mother and today he is the director of music and opera at the University of Capetown."
Before he turned 21, Fiasconaro was given a choice of citizenship: Italian or South African. "It was hard," he says. "I'm a South African and I love my country, but there would be no South African team in the Olympics."
At his father's urging, he decided to compete for Italy. Some South Africans, especially the conservative Afrikaners, did not like it. One newspaper called him a traitor. But he went to Italy, was issued a passport and began learning the language. "The only Italian I had ever heard was when my father was swearing at me," he says. "And he never translated." Two weeks later Fiasconaro won the 400 in the Italian national championships. But at Munich he never reached the qualifying heats; he was sidelined by a stress fracture in his left foot.
"He's always had problems with his feet," Banner says. "Too much speed work kills him. That's why we switched to the 800. He really wasn't fast enough to be a great 400 runner anyway."
It was a first-class move. Last year, Fiasconaro, who claims he would still rather be playing rugby, ran 800 meters in 1:43.7, breaking Peter Snell's 11-year-old world record by .6 of a second.
"That's why an 880 would be such a beautiful race," Franken contended to Banner. "He's got the world record in the 800. He would be racing Rick Wohlhuter, who has the 880 world record, and Mark Winzenried, who has the 1,000 indoor world record. A great match."
Banner was not impressed. "We thought it was a 440 and that's the way we trained," he said. "No 880."
Sighing, Franken suggested they compromise—run a 600.
"Fantastic," said Banner. "First class. Top rate. A 600. Done."
Wohlhuter and Winzenried were not enthralled, but said they would run the shorter distance, if not well.
"It's a different game," said Wohlhuter, a Chicago insurance adjuster who broke Jim Ryun's 880 world record of 1:44.9 by .3 of a second last year. "I haven't done any speed work. I'd say it's a little unfortunate, a little disappointing. It's diminished my chances of winning. I thought it would be a great race, he and I at the distance we are both best at."
At breakfast Saturday morning, Banner told Fiasconaro of the decision. "Great," the runner said. "Hey, did I tell you I found my girl in North Carolina? Fantastic." He giggled. "She was a little sleepy at first. She said, 'Marcello, is that you?' But then we talked a long time. I really love her."
Banner laughed. "He met her just once," he said. "In Italy."
"Yeah, but I love her," said Fiasconaro. "Hey, what time is it in Ontario? There's a girl there I want to call. She's fantastic. I think I love her."
That night, Winzenried decided he had only once chance: to come out blasting. Winzenried would decide the same thing if he were running 60 yards or a marathon. "They don't call me Super Rabbit for nothing," he said. And he came out blasting. Behind him, Wohlhuter and Fiasconaro dueled for second place, with the latter in the lead.
With 60 yards to go, Fiasconaro flew away from Wohlhuter and past Winzenried to win easily in 1:10.8 on a very slow track. Flagged, Winzenried finished a close third behind USC's James Baxter, with Wohlhuter fourth.
"It was a stinking race," said Winzenried. "If I had been up in the stands, I'd have booed. In fact, I almost went into the stands when he blew past me. Man, he's so strong I could feel the vibes."
"Hey," said Fiasconaro, with some excitement. "You know what just happened?"
"Yeah, you won."
"What? Oh, no. I got kissed by an actress. She came up and said she thought I was great. I said O.K., let's go. She said wait a minute, she'd be back. She's right over there."
"Well, go on over," said Banner.
"No," said Fiasconaro. "I don't want her to think I'm bloody pushy."