The Malta Independent 22 January 2021, Friday

50 Shades of Greats: Sport is a marvellous social tool

Simon Farrugia Thursday, 31 December 2020, 10:03 Last update: about 22 days ago

The Malta Independent on Sunday meets JOHN ZAMMIT, one of Malta’s top sports administrators. He speaks about his competitive career, his three-year spell in Sicily and about the founding of the BMX Association

John Zammit was born on 5 February 1948. His childhood was that of a normal boy brought up in Sliema together with his brothers where they used to play in the streets in winter and at the sea in summer. "After passing through my school days among others, attending the Sliema Primary, I started in the business sector, working with my late father, Joseph, in a shop in Sliema near Stella Maris church. Later I became a member of the Auxiliary Workers Scheme, followed by working for the government in the Sports Section at Marsa Grounds and the Maltese Council for Sport within the Ministry for Education."

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But how did John start interesting himself in cycling and was it the only sport that interested him? "As a young boy, our family's home in Sliema was situated next door to a pharmacy. There I got to know about Sam Portelli, who used to do massages to national team cyclists in this pharmacy. He introduced me to a leading cyclist of that time, Joe Polidano with whom I joined the Qormi Cycling Club. From there I never looked back and got hooked into the sport."

Zammit's first taste of competition started with the Qormi Cycling Club. It was the beginning of an illustrious career for him. "Yes Qormi was my first cycling club. It was one of the strongest at that time. I remember very well the races and the massive support we used to have as carcades used to accompany us to races and back. It was huge and the rivalry with the other clubs was very strong."

John also had a three-year spell with GS Lampolet in Catania. It was another wonderful experience for him. "Cycling for GS Lampolet was a great experience. I used to live in a small house in Catania. I was a full-time athlete and dedicated my whole time to training and racing. I had improved quite a lot and had eventually become the team's best rider. I had plenty of success in Sicily but my career had to be cut short when my father passed away and I eventually returned to Malta."

In an athlete's career particular moments stand out, both beautiful and unfortunately disappointing ones. For John this was no exception. "There were many memorable moments in my career, in particular being awarded the Merit Award from the European Cycling Union and later on the Merit Award from the International Cycling Union. To add to that I was honoured with Gieħ ir-Repubblika from the President of Malta as well as inducted in the MOC Hall of Fame. These great achievements make me forget the many disappointments I had in cycling both as a rider and also as an administrator."

"One particular moment, which stands out, is the audience I had with His Holiness Pope Francis during the EUC Congress in Italy. It was a very deep emotional and spiritual experience."

Zammit goes down memory lane to recount some memorable instances. "A particular moment, which resulted in a very difficult race over eight laps, was the Mosta-tal-Fiddien-Chadwick Lakes-Mosta crossroads circuit. Moreover, I also remember vividly, though a long time ago, the participation in the 1971 Med Games held in Tunis and the pre-Olympics the following year."

Turning to disappointing moments Zammit mentioned among the foremost an incident during the then MMU (Milk Marketing Undertaking) race where he had to be taken to hospital. "It was the third and final race of the Malta Championship. I had already won the first two races, but that incident prevented me from winning the Malta title, as I did not receive any points from that final race."

After ending his career Zammit had a brief coaching spell. "Yes, soon after I hang up my bike, I got involved with the national team, particularly in the preparation of the Small Nations Games in Andorra in 1991 and Leichenstein in 1999."

And finally to administration where this must be considered as the most successful time of them all. "Anything that had to do with cycling was my passion. I had founded the Malta BMX Association with a group of youngsters. Above all I consider BMX as my baby. In those days, in Sliema, there used to be some youngsters playing with their skate-boards and bikes on the pavement near the Tower. People, especially those walking along the promenade, were getting frustrated, and someone asked me if it would be possible to get them organised in some place to avoid the inconvenience to the public. I spoke to some of the youngsters and they agreed to join me at the place down below, which was still a big field, and today has been turned into Independence Gardens."

Zammit has been the president of the Cycling Federation for a number of years. What has been done so far and what challenges are you facing? "I was elected president in 2002. The situation back then was much different than today. Our sport requires the closure of roads and it is proving to be ever so difficult to obtain permits. Expenses have increased drastically and the MCF struggles each year to raise funds to organise the championship races. Having said that, on a sporting level, we have ventured more couragiously in high level competitions. I have surrounded myself with valid people whose experience in their field has proven to be of great benefit to the federation.

Our secretary, Joe Bajada is now a voting delegate at UCI level and his tireless work for the Federation in that front and in local administration is invaluable. Thanks to his work we have been able to organise a series of courses in collaboration with the World Cycling Centre for coaches and officials and more courses are in the pipeline. On the other hand, Daniel Borg Olivier keeps our finances on check. On the technical side, Etienne Bonello runs his ever so ambitious national team programmes and has got us from riding amateur races to venturing in professional races with great success. It was due to this that we managed to turn around our poor performances at GSSE to double medals in San Marino."

Adding to this, cycling has always faced and is still facing difficult challenges being a road sport. But these past years has seen the introduction of cycling lanes though not specifically targeted towards competitive cycling. Is this enough or are we still lagging behind? "Cycling infrastructure is always welcome; knowing that our athletes are training on safer roads is always good. I must point out though that there is a difference between a bicycle commuter and a racing cyclist. Cycle lanes are more targeted to the commuter. Racing cyclists need to train on roads and as such cycle lanes are of minimal use if not to ride to a training destination. Racing cyclists ride at speeds acceding 50km/hr at times and that may become dangerous in a cycle lane. Motorists need to be made more aware that the road is there to share with all road users and that the Highway Code is followed by all."

The Sport Malta Awards is another milestone. Being there representing the Federation, which you work so much for and above all being recognised is another great achievement. "We have been recognised many a time at the Sport Malta Awards. Two years ago I won the People's Choice award, which gives me great pride - knowing that I was voted by the public means that they really appreciate my work in the sport. Bajada had also been recognised for his work in the Federation and we have had many riders who had made it to the finals including Marie Claire Aquilina and Etienne Bonello, to name a few."

You were also inducted in the Hall of Fame by the MOC. What does this mean to you? "It was a huge honour for me personally. To be recognised by the Olympic Committee is something I keep close to my heart. I have sacrificed a lot for the sport that I love. I have dedicated this award to my family especially my wife who was of tremendous support throughout my career."

Turning to more personal affairs Zammit gave a short account of the importance that his family has played in his life. "My family is my support structure. My wife and my children have always been involved in one way or another. I owe most of my success to them; just for being there for me - during times of stress and when it was time to celebrate."

And what is John's favourite food? "Nothing beats a good plate of pasta. Once a racing cyclist, you are always a racing cyclist, at least with the food."

Zammit has travelled to a lot of countries and he found it difficult to choose a favourite country as the best travel destination. "More recently I have been attending the UCI Congress, which usually is held during the Cycling World Championships in the host country. I have seen many beautiful places and I cannot say I have a favourite. My wife is British so I might say I visit the UK more often."

Being such a busy man, does John have time for any other particular hobbies? And is there anything else that he loves doing during his free time? "It is hard to call it a hobby anymore, the BMX track is where I spend most of my time. The youths that frequent our track give me great energy and keep me young. As regards free time not sure what that is anymore, but the answer to that is that in my free time I just rest. An afternoon nap and off I go back to the track or chasing permits to organise races."

His final words should be given weight especially by the younger generation. "Sport is great for the mind and the body. It is a marvellous social tool. It teaches you discipline and the value of things. In a few words Sports makes you a better person. So do whatever sport is possible.

"Personally I would like to show my gratitude to Sport Malta, The Olympic Committee, The Police Force, the clubs and their members for their collaboration and last but not least to the Federation Executive Committee and my family for their support."


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