Paola Pigni, Italian Running trailblazer

Edwin  - CEO March 16, 2024
Updated 2024/03/17 at 12:38 AM
8 Min Read
Paola Cacchi leads from Joyce Smith and Anne Garrett at the inaugural World Cross Country Championships (© Mark Shearman) World Athletics
Paola Cacchi leads from Joyce Smith and Anne Garrett at the inaugural World Cross Country Championships (© Mark Shearman) World Athletics

Fifty years since Monza – Pigni-Cacchi the ‘revolutionary of women’s running’


Paola Pigni of Italy during the 1972 Olympic Games 1500m in Munich (© Getty Images)/World Athletics

It was as Paola Cacchi that the Italian trailblazer who first made her name as Paola Pigni officially entered the history books on home ground in Monza 50 years ago; Simon Turnbull writes for World Athletics Heritage.


The women’s 4km race at the second World Athletics Cross Country Championships, held at the Mirabello Racecourse in Monza Park on 16 March 1974, was the first time the one-time Milanese sprinter competed solely under her married name.


Since marrying her coach, Bruno Cacchi, in 1970, the world record-breaker had raced as Paolo Pigni-Cacchi but chose to drop her maiden name as she prepared to defend her world cross-country title on home ground.


At the age of 28, under the direction of her husband, a devotee of Arthur Lydiard’s training methods, she had long been established as a groundbreaking force in female middle-distance running.


First woman sub-4:30 at mile and sub-16 at 5000m


Between 1969 and 1973, Pigni-Cacchi set eight world records ranging from 1500m to 10,000m.


In July 1969, running in the classic floodlit La Notturna di Milano meeting in the Arena Napoleonica, she obliterated the world record figures for 1500m, clocking 4:12.4 ahead of the Dutch runner Maria Gommers, who finished 0.6 inside her old global mark in second place with 4:15.0.


The daughter of a renowned Milanese singer became the first woman to crack 16 minutes for 5000m in September that year, clocking 15:53.6 in her home city to eclipse the 16:17.4 world record she had set in Formia four months previously.


In August 1973, Paola Pigni-Cacchi was the first woman to break 4:30 for the mile, clocking 4:29.5, again on Italian soil in Viareggio.


She started her career as the Italian 400m champion in the championship arena in 1965. She reached the 800m semifinals at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and won the European 1500m bronze in Athens in 1969, finishing behind Czechoslovakia’s Jaroslava Jehlickova and Gommers.


Then, in Munich in 1972, Pigni-Cacchi graduated to global podium status on the track. In the inaugural Olympic women’s 1500m final, she secured the bronze medal behind the Soviet Lyudmila Bragina and Gunhild Hoffmeister of East Germany. She improved her Italian record in all three rounds, with 4:09.53, 4:07.83, and 4:02.85, which remained her PB.


She was a mother by then, having given birth to daughter Chiara in 1971.


International and world cross-country winner


In the country, the familiar figure on the start line in Monza in 1974 also made a global mark.


In March 1970, she won the 3km women’s race at the International Cross Country Championships in Vichy, finishing 0.8 ahead of Pole Zofia Kolakowska. The next day, at an alternative event held in Frederick, Maryland, Doris Brown of the USA won the fourth of five consecutive international cross-country titles.


When the International Cross Country Championships, or Cross de Nations, came under the umbrella of the IAAF, the forerunner of World Athletics, in 1973, the first official women’s world cross country champion was undisputed.


That honor fell to Pigni-Cacchi. At the Waregem Hippodrome in the west of Belgium, she was too strong for her rivals in the 4km women’s race, winning by 60m from England’s Joyce Brown. Nursing an injury, Doris Brown finished 39 seconds behind in 15th place.


And so to Monza in 1974…


The junior men’s race was first up at the 1974 World Cross Country Championships. Venanzio Ortis carried big hopes of home gold into the 7100m event but had to settle for silver after a gripping three-way battle with the bespectacled Rich Kimball of the USA, who sprinted clear in the last 400m, and Ireland’s John Treacy, who wound up third.


The women’s 4km race followed at the Mirabella Racecourse. The English duo of Rita Ridley and Ann Yeoman were the early leaders, but when Cacchi made her move, only Finland’s Nina Holmen could keep in touch—though not for very long. The Italian finished six seconds clear in 12:42.


It was a historic achievement by the Milanese woman. Cacchi became the first athlete to retain an IAAF world title – and the first runner to secure back-to-back official world (as opposed to international) cross-country titles.


She also had the satisfaction of claiming silver in the team competition. The Italians finished second to England, with 28 points and a haul 50.


Paola Pigni, John Walker, Filbert Bayi and Sebastian Coe at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in MonacoPaola Pigni, John Walker, Filbert Bayi, and Sebastian Coe at the World Athletics Heritage Mile Night in Monaco (© Philippe Fitte)

‘A source of inspiration’


In the day’s final race, Belgian Eric De Beck—a protege of 1964 Olympic steeplechase champion Gaston Roelants—won the senior men’s title.


Franco Fava was the first Italian home, in eighth place. After finishing eighth in the Olympic marathon in Montreal in 1974, he became a long-time chronicler of Italian track and field as the athletics correspondent of the national daily newspaper Corriere dello Sport.


“Paola was the female pioneer of long-distance running in Italy and around the world, going back to the end of the 1960s,” Fava maintains.


“On 31 December 1971, she was the first woman in Italy to officially complete a full marathon, running 3:00:01. For this, she was awarded the title ‘revolutionary of women’s running.’


“She inspired Gabriella Dorio, Olympic gold medallist for Italy in the 1500m at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.


“In 2019, she was among the great milers of the past honored by Seb Coe at the Monaco World Athletics Heritage Mile Night ceremony.”


Sadly, two years after that grand celebration in Monte Carlo, Pigni-Cacchi collapsed and died of a heart attack at the age of 75. She had been attending a gathering of Italian track and field greats at the Castel Porziano in the presence of the Italian President Sergio Mattarella.


“Paola was the forerunner of our middle-distance champions,” proclaimed Stefano Mei, president of the Italian Athletics Federation and 1986 European 10,000m champion.


“Her bronze medal at the Munich Olympics in 1972 had an enormous impact. It was worth gold because women’s sport was not yet as developed as today.


“Paola pioneered great athletics, an example for many athletes of her generation and subsequently. Her memory will be honored.”


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