Antonio SantoriA Trainer, a Dreamer and a Fighter for Peace

 

 

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Danny Ben-Tal: Santori Runs through Ethnic Barriers (1989)

 

Joel Gordin: Long-Distance Challenge (1995)

 

Joel Gordin: Born to Run

 

Annie Rose Goldenberg: to Sweat and to Work Hard Together (1996)

 

Joel Gordin: Breaking Traditions (1997)

 

 

Naama & Maja, IDF, daughters, January 2009

 

Danny Ben-Tal

Santori Runs through Ethnic Barriers

 

Jerusalem Post 6-12-1989

 

Israel's woefully small marathon running fraternity has its share of colorful characters, but few are as instantly recognizable and popular as Antonio Santori

 

In his own quiet way, Santori has proved that sport can overcome ethnic barriers by maintaining a joint Jewish-Arab running club in the Galilee through the past decade.

 

Until recently, a number of Kibbutz Adamit on the northern border, and now a resident of Moshav Bustan Hagalil, the former Italian - iden­tifiable by his stocky build and voluminous mus­tache - is the driving-force behind the Sulam Tsur club, which will field 10 entrants in today's Tiberias marathon.

 

Heading the list will be Dib Shak'ar from Majd-El-Kru and Eli Dinur of Kibbutz Gesher Ahziv who is just three months short of his 50th birthday, and 40-year-old Leora Fishbein, running her fourth marathon.

 

Santori, who started training as a runner at the age of 10, has run five full marathons himself, although with limited success. But, as a coach, h has always excelled. Born to a Catholic father, who fought with the Italian Partisans in World War II, and a Muslim mother of Albanian origin, the discipline which he demands from his runners is a result of his Spartan upbringing.

 

In June, 1970, he arrived in Israel for what was intended to be a brief stay as a kibbutz volunteer on Admit, where he eventually made his home. At first he worked in the factory at kibbutz Eilon, some 10 kilometers away. Running to work every morning, he would pass the Arab village of Ar­masheh.

 

In 1975, he organized his first running group for the village's children, engaging, for the first time, in what would eventually become the consuming passion in his life. In 1980, Santori attended an athletics coaching course at the Wingate Institute, and from there he started to widen his net.

 

Attracting new athletes at a brisk rate, his club soon became the focal-point of long-distance runners, both Jews and Arabs, in the north of the country.

 

It was under his guidance that the career of Amal Abdalla, from the village of Mazra, began to blossom. More than any other athlete, she represents the great strides that can be made with proper guidance.

 

"Running through the fields in a pair of shorts is not exactly how Arab girls are brought up", Santori points out. Still, with a mixture of informality and a no-nonsense approach, he can point to continuity at Sulam Tsur which has become the envy of much larger running clubs.

 

Last year, Abdalla created a precedent, when she came first amongst the Israeli women in the Tiberias marathon. Her time was 3:08:48.

 


Amal Abdalla in the Tiberias Marathon

 

Although her studies will force her to miss this year's race, Santori is confident about her future: "She puts everything into whatever she turns to at the moment that means studying to become nurse, but I hope she'll return to running race soon."

 

Although club membership has dropped from 60 to 40 (including 10 Arabs) in the past two years, Santori does not appear too worried. "Sulam Tsur will always be a small club, but the then again I never planned to take over the local athletics scene. Things change - for example in 1981 there were nearly 200 runners at the Galil Panhandle half-marathon, now there are fewer than 70. It's not the size that counts, but the fact that such a framework continues to exist."

 

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Joel Gordin

Long-distance Challenge

 

The Jerusalem Post, 16.3.1995

 

Without even the proverbial shoestring budget, an Italian-born taskmaster is turning Beduin girls into top-knotch runners.

A neglected, weed-infested field that once was a running track next to the Na'aman sports complex south of Acre draws teenage girls on Saturday mornings. They race around the perimeter of the field while a stocky, mustacheoed, Italian-born man called Antonio Santori bellows orders at them.

Most of the young runners are Beduin girls from the Western Galilee village of Arab el Aramsha, but there are a sprinkling of Jewish teenagers from nearby towns and kibbutzim.

How do you tell the Beduin from the Jewish girls? The Jewish girls wear shoes. The Beduin girls prefer to run barefoot.

Santori and his pupils are one of the country's leading athletic nurseries, which has started to attract international attention. ("The barefoot Beduin will be world beaters," blared a recent banner headline in the Italian sports journal Atletica).

The experiment is serious sport and a revolutionary step for the Beduin girls: Moslem women are not supposed to wear shorts in public.

For the past two years these girls have won every middle-distance (from 1,000m. up to 10km.) cross country and road race in their respective age groups on the local circuit. Most of the them usually win races against girls much older than themselves.

The best of the bunch, Lotfia Juma, is only 14 but she won the under-19 section of the 10km. event at the Ein Gedi road race in March. Her time of 41 minutes, 26 seconds for the 10km. puts her among the top 10 women runners of all time for the distance.

Looking for new worlds to conquer, six of the girls recently took part in an international cross-country tournament for youth in San Vittore, Italy. The team was Juma, Yasmin Saad, 13; Rania Eyada, 17 and Sama Musa, 17, from Arab el Aramsha; and Sheni Bloch and Yufit Misgav, both 15, from Kiryat Bialik.

Running barefoot when it was a cold 2C outside, Juma came second out of 32 in the under-15 category for 2,000m., and Saad came eighth. In the under-17 2,500m. event, Eyada was third and Misgav sixth.

To many local athletic mavens, the girls' running team is the most exciting thing to have happened on the local athletic scene since the arrival of top athletes from the former Soviet Union in 1990-91. However, athletic officials have learned from the mistakes made with the Russians. Nobody is boasting about "Olympic hopes." For example, Dudi Eiger a scout for the Israel Athletic Federation, will only concede: "There's a lot of talent waiting to be tapped from Santori's group."

Jacques Cohen, editor of Running World, says: "Lotfia Juma's times are excellent. But we must be careful before proclaiming her a future world beater. She may drop out within the next few years."


Lotfia Juma with Antonio Santori and her father with table of her achievements

The group would never have come into existence without the help of the flamboyant Santori, which explains why their debut overseas was in Italy. For the past 15 years he has been Mr. Athletics in Western Galilee. "My father was a Catholic, my mother was a Moslem and my wife a Jew. Athletics is my religion," he says.

Santori has used sport to overcome ethnic barriers in his adopted land. At the same time, he has opened new doors to Moslem women in Western Galilee. Fifteen years ago he founded the country's only Jewish-Arab running club, and he has single-handedly maintained the club. The girls' section is a spin-off.

Santori's Catholic father fought with the partisans in World War II and his Moslem mother is of Albanian origin. They gave birth to him 50 years ago in the hamlet of Rieti, 100 km. south of Rome. "It's been a development town for the past 2,000 years," quips Santori.

He says he had a spartan upbringing, "ideal for long-distance running." He started training as serious runner at age 10 and he also was a keen footballer. But, above all, he worked hard at home. "Our village was smack in the center of Italy's Red belt and as sworn socialists, we believed in the dignity of labor. I was up every day at 4.a.m., and did a full day's work in the fields or at my father's garage before going to school."

After he left school ("I did not graduate") Santori continued to work in the garage. In 1970, at age 25 , he set out to see the world and hitchhiked through Europe. When he reached Istanbul, he was offered a job as a dishwasher on a ferry to Haifa. He jumped at the chance to get to the Promised Land, but not for religious reasons.

"Because of my socialist, atheist upbringing, I just had to see a kibbutz. After I arrived in Haifa, dirty and unkept, without money or a visa, I was put in a lockup by the local police. However, when I told them I wanted to volunteer to work on a kibbutz, the police let me out. One of the cops shouted after me: 'You'll be better off in prison.' "

Santori went to Kibbutz Ruhama in the Jezreel Valley and worked as a shepherd. "It was wonderful. I felt like King David. I made a flute from a reed and sat under a tree playing the flute all morning. I wrote to my parents in Rieti and warned them I would not be coming home. Kibbutz and Israel were my new home."

He moved on to the newly revived Hashomer Hatza'ir Kibbutz Adamit on the northern border, high on a hill overlooking Lebanon. The kibbutz had a large population of Anglo-Saxons, who had drifted there during the Sixties. Santori joined the group, did dishes and worked in the apple orchards and returned to athletics, running every moment his schedule would allow. He met and married Nurit, a sports teacher and daughter of the founding members of Kibbutz Eilon.

Eventually, he was given a job on the production line at Eilon's factory, about 10km. down the mountain from Adamit. He ran to work every day. When he came up the hill going home, he passed the village of Arab el Aramsha, and the kids would run after him shouting "Antonio, Antonio."

"They were the only people in the whole Western Galilee, in those days, who were interested in pacing me," he says. Then he adds with his blunt sense of humor: "They are natural athletes. Most spend their young lives running away from irate Jewish farmers who accuse them of stealing fruit.

"Some members of the surrounding kibbutzim tried to thwart my plan to organize the Beduin kids into an athletic club. The farmers feared they would never be able to catch the children in a chase."'

In 1975, Santori started his first running group for the village children. For most, it was their first taste of any kind of organized sport. At the same time, Jewish joggers in the area heard that he had formed a running club, and joined up.

The "club" remained a rudimentary, amateur affair without funds or proper organization until 1980. Then, Santori attended a coaching course at Wingate Institute. With a diploma under his belt, he won kibbutz approval to be athletics' organizer for the Sulam Tsur regional council.

He founded the Sulam Tsur road-running and marathon club, which became the focal point of long-distance runners, both Jews and Arabs, in the North.

It was never intended to have political overtones but it was living proof that Jews and Arabs could get together in harmony, at least on the sports field.

In 1989 the Movement for a Better Israel awarded Santori, at a ceremony in the Knesset, a special certificate for "promoting sport and good relations between Jews and Arabs."

Membership in the running club ranges from 40 to 80. The club produces a large proportion of winners in the Tel Aviv marathon, the Tiberias marathon and the Ein Gedi road race. In this year's Tiberia marathon (the offical Israeli championship), four of the first 10 in the men's event were from Sulam Tsur - as many as came from the well-heeled, well-established city clubs like Maccabi and Hapoel Tel Aviv.

"He's done solid, consistent work with the minimum of money and poor conditions," concedes Running World's Cohen. "If there were more Santoris, Israeli athletics would look a lot better."

Club members range in age between nine and 69, and include Argentine-born Leora Fishbein from Nahariya, and Dib Shakar from Majd-El-Krum, both among the top 10 men and women marathon runners in the country.

Nothing stops them from running, neither snow, nor sleet nor katushas. "Once a katusha fell on our starting line in the morning," says Santori. "By the afternoon, everyone was back running, skirting the hole in the ground."

The Sulam Tsur running club has become Santori's life passion. He has read every bit of literature about athletics he could get and has a library of about 500 books on the subject. He wrote to newspapers and philanthropists throughout the world to raise funds for his club. He badgered his fellow kibbutzniks into helping.

Santori's single-minded pursuit of athletics put him on a collision course with his kibbutz and five years ago he left ("before they could throw me out"). He now lives on Moshav Granot, while his wife returned to Kibbutz Eilon. He works night shift at a factory near Nahariya, but is still at the track every morning.

"A coach must keep fit himself," he says, "even though you don't have to be great runner." Santori, no mean athlete, has completed five full marathons.

He has egged on Amal Abdalla from the village of Mazra who says she can't recall when she became interested in sport or discovered her ability to run. But in 1983 she drifted toward the Sulam Tsur club. Till then, there were no Arab women runners.

Abdalla's parents and brothers were adamant that she would not take part in road races, appearing in shorts and an undershirt in public. Santori sat with them for hours, night after night, cajoling and persuading until they relented.

With proper guidance Abdalla made great strides until she won the women's section of the Tiberias marathon in 1988. She was chosen for the national team and Santori had to go through the motions with her family all over again to get them to allow her to go overseas and stay at hotels and training camps in a mixed group of Jewish men and women.

"I had to take on the neigbours and the village elders as well," he recalls.

How did he succeed?

"I was direct and to the point," he says. "Contrary to popular myth, Arabs don't appreciate circumlocution - at least not by westerners who lack the subtlety to make it interesting." Then, he adds : "It helped that I am not Jewish."

Abdalla eventually gave up athletics and became a laboratory technician. But by then Santori had built up his reputation in the area's Arab villages. Fathers (some of whom had been trained by Santori) were ready to entrust their children to him. The idea of a multi-racial club for girls was born about two years ago.

The Beduin girls are brought from their village in a minibus belonging to the municipality. The Jewish girls are driven by their parents, who usually stay for the training session.

Relations between the two groups are correct but formal. "They {the Beduin} come from a different world. I have nothing in common with them but sport," says Bloch, who spent the first eight years of her life in the US, where she first tried out at track and field events.

"I once asked them to visit me at my home, but they did not turn up. My parents won't allow me to go to the village," laments Misgav.

The Beduin smile softly, but say nothing, when asked about how they feel about running in general and with Jewish girls in particular. "They don't understand Hebrew," says the driver who brought them. He offers to interpret. "They love athletics, and they like their Jewish teammates and want to run for Israel," he says, hardly listening for their answers.

Afterwards, I picked up quite an amicable conversation - all in Hebrew - between Bloch and Juma. The young Beduin have a sound grasp of the language. Santori says they're shy about speaking Hebrew, and with strangers will keep their eyes on the ground and hold a hand in front of their mouth when they speak it.

Santori, immaculate in blue track suit, with three high-tech stopwatches hanging from his neck, at first blustered that he is not that interested in the social relations between his charges.

"I am trying to make athletes out of these girls, not organizing a tea party."

However, there is obvious pride in his voice when he says that "relations warmed when the girls were in Italy and they were like a family."

But he is definitely tough with his charges. "A sportsperson must be disciplined," says Santori. "When I started training Amal Abdalla, she insisted that she would wear long pants and cover her arms while running. I told her: 'This is Antonio's running club. I am your trainer, not the prophet Mohammed. You do what I tell you or go back and stay in the Dark Ages. She was hurt and angry, but she returned to run. I don't care what my charges think of me - only that they run fast."

Then why doesn't he insist that the Beduin girls wear track shoes?

"That's a different story. If I made them wear shoes, it would cut their speed by up to 20 percent. Shoes are not necessary for those who can manage without them. The great Ehtiopian Abebe Bikele won the marathon gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, running barefoot. The South African middle-distance woman runner Zola Budd also ran barefoot at the Olympics.

I remind him what long-distance running expert James F. Fixx wrote in his 1979 bestsller The Complete Book of Running, the book which launched a million joggers throughout the world: "Think of what you are asking your feet to do when you run. Each shoe lands on the ground 1,000 or so times during one mile. If you're not wearing the right shoes, you chances of having trouble with your feet or somewhere else are greatly increased."

"The only thing that advice was good for," sneers Santori, "was to set off the milliard-dollar sports shoe industry which is still thriving and misleading the public today."

Santori will also never use the words "Olympic hopefuls" for his six or seven girls. However, he says that Juma, Eyada and Saad have the ability to do better than even Esther Roth (the only Israeli runner ever to have reached an Olympic finals).

Others experts are guarded. "Juma, in particular, is certainly a talent," says Eiger of the Israel Athletic Federation. "However, it will only be possible to gauge her talent when she and the rest compete seriously overseas. Israeli youth athletics is about 30 years behind the rest of the world."

Says Cohen: "Some years ago a local 16 year old called Rami Levron was hailed as a second Carl Lewis when he leapt 7m. 50cm. Within a year, he simply disappeared from the scene."

Santori insists he has made a breakthrough. "There are many theories as to why Afro-Americans, as a group, are good in sport. It's a combination of their genetic makeup and their social circumstances. In that respect, the Beduin's hardy way-of-life would make them better sportspeople than their Jewish fellow-citizens. Up till now the men have not had any sports infrastructure in their areas and the women have had no infrastructure and have been held back by ancient prejudices.

"Every time one of those little Beduin girls get on the bus and comes to running practice she is going forward years in time. It gives me a good feeling to be part of that progress."

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Born to Run

 

In his spare time, Antonio Santori roamed the kibbutzim, moshavim, Arab villages and towns of Western Galilee, stopping anyone whom he saw running and asking that person to join his club.

His search also took him to the caravan camps of Ethiopian immigrants, where he found Haile Sitein, who came to this country in Operation Solomon in 1991. He was 37, living in a caravan camp near Nahariya, unemployed and desperate about how to feed his wife and four children.

Sitein had experimented with long-distance running in Ethiopia, with no serious opportunities nor proper training. "In Israel I started to run to get away from the tiny caravan," he says. "In any case, I had nothing better to do."

Santori spotted Sitein running through a deserted field and signed him up in the Sulam Tsur club. Sitein trained hard, seven days a week. Less than a year later, the hitherto unknown Sitein was the sensation of the 1993 Tel Aviv marathon, the first Israeli past the finishing line in a time of 2 hours, 33 minutes, .09 seconds. He was beaten only by two world-class visitors from Ethiopia and Brazil.

More important to Santori, Sitein won $750 in prize money, more than he had earned in his life. Sitein has since tucked many titles and much more prize money under his belt and has represented Israel at international events. Last month, he won the half marathon at Ein Gedi in 1:05;10, beating a field of top overseas contestants.

"I owe everything to Antonio," he tells reporters after every race, even though Sitein has moved to a "richer" runing club at Kfar Saba.

J.G

 

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Annie Rose Goldenberg

 

To Sweat and to Work Hard Together

 

Published in "Runners World" December 1996, no. 12

 

What do you get when you mix together a Muslim taxi driver, a Jewish housewife, an Ethiopian college student, a Kibbutz farmer and several teenaged Beduin girls who run barefoot? You get some of the members of the most unusual running club in Israel. And listen to the coach's pedigree: "My father was Catholic, my mother was muslin, my wife is a Jew, and running is my religion", says Antonio Santori, a former 2:30 marathoner.

 

Santori, 47, started the Sulam Tzur Running Club in 1980 in Western Galilee. Five runners showed up that first day; the club still numbers just 40, but with several age-group standouts among them. Santori's runners have performed well on tours to Italy, Turkey and Portugal.

 

One of Santori's early charges, Shem-Tov Sabag, ran a 2:18 marathon for a place on the Israeli national team at the 1984 Los-Angeles Olympics. Following in Sabag's footsteps today is Lotfia Juma, a 15-years-old Beduin girl who's training for the 2004 Olympics. When Juma and her barefoot teammates (who cover their heads for religious reasons) first showed up at races, many people laughed. Not anymore.

 

The club's immediate goal is to help its members run faster, but its larger goal is to break down ethnic barriers. Santori makes further progress on this front every time he helps organize a race between Arab and Jewish schools in the Galilee region. As he says, "The fastest way for people to appreciate and respect each other is to sweat and work hard together".

 

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Joel Gordin

 

Breaking Traditions

 

Jerusalem Post, Simpler English Magazine, May 1997

 

Earlier this year Mahmud Juma of the village of Arab el Aramsha in the western Galilee was killed in action in Lebanon. He was one of many Beduin trackers who have died on active service in the IDF.

 

Among the thousands of mourners at the funeral were Juma's 14 brothers and sisters. They included Lotfia, a sturdy, athletic teenager of 16.

 

After the ceremony she did not go with the guests to the traditional mourning tent. She went out to the fields and took off her shoes. Then, fighting back her tears, she ran for 10 kilometers over stones and rocks, through streams and mud. Lotfia is a long-distance runner - the best of her age in the country.

 

She started running three years ago. Since then, she has won every major middle distance event for women under the age of 19. She holds four junior national records. This year alone, she won the under-19 section of the Ein  Gedi road race and the Tel Aviv half-marathon. At Tel Aviv she set a course record of 1 hour, 30 min­utes and 43 seconds. She has repre­sented Israel at international school events.

 

Whether on track, road or field, she never owned a pair of shoes in her life. Her coach, Antonio Santori of the run­ning club Sulam Tsur, says, "If I force her to wear shoes she runs at half her speed. Shoes bother her.

Shoes are not necessary for those who can manage without them," he explains. "The great Ethiopian Abebe Bikele won the marathon gold medal at the 1960 Olympics running bare­foot."

 

However, the lack of shoes was only a small problem as far as getting Lotfia to run was concerned.

"She had to fight tremendous preju­dice to join the running club. Arab girls simply do not go running through fields in a pair of shorts" Santori says. He spent months trying to persuade Lotfia's parents and the village elders to allow her to run. In the end, he suc­ceeded. After three years, her partici­pation on the running team is accept­ed.

 

"Still, I would never have been suc­cessful if Lotfia herself had not per­sisted. It takes tremendous courage to break traditions that are deeply rooted in your family for generations," Santori says.

 

Lotfia's bravery reflects that of her brother Mahmud, who died for his country. "That is why she did not want to miss her training session, even on the day of his funeral," Santori says.

"She knew he would have approved."                      

 

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The bare-foot champion girls

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איילות המועדון הישראלי לרצים טריאטלון Ayalot Israeli Runners Club

Barefoot Beduin Teenage Girls Tearing Up Israeli Track Circuit by Joel Gordin

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Last updated February 27th 2009 (first posted May 2006)

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