'Never give up': Italy hopes for Zanardi recovery


Rome (AFP)

Hospitalised since Friday in Siena in a critical condition after a road accident, Alex Zanardi already almost died in 2001 and has lived two careers -- first as a Formula One driver, then as a Paralympic champion.

The Italian, who had both his legs amputated in a motor racing accident two decades ago, lost control of his handbike during a race on a Tuscan road and crashed into an oncoming truck.

The 53-year-old suffered numerous facial fractures and was placed in an artificial coma.

Doctors have described his condition as stable, but serious, and hope to be able to wake him next week to start assessing his neurological situation.

Zanardi has already lived these uncertain hours between life and death before after a terrible accident at Lausitzring in Germany in 2001.

After two mixed experiences in Formula One from 1991 to 1994, and in 1999 with Williams, the Italian returned to CART racing where he was series champion in 1997 and 1998.

That day in Germany, his car stalled in the middle of the track after a spin and was struck by another car at a speed of over 300 km/h (186 mph).

The impact tore off his two legs and Zanardi lost a lot of blood, with a chaplain giving him the last rites.

His heart stopped beating several times and he underwent 15 operations in a Berlin hospital.

- 'The half of me that remained' -

"When I woke up, I didn't think about my legs. I thought about the half of me that remained," Zanardi recalled.

Just three months later, the Italian made his first public appearance in his hometown Bologna during an award ceremony.

"What emotion, my legs are trembling," he said.

This positive attitude accompanied the second part of Zanardi's life, which made him one of the most loved and respected sportsmen in Italy.

After a few years driving in specially-adapted cars, Zanardi went on to become an icon for disabled athletes competing on his handbike.

In 2008, he took part in the New York marathon and finished fourth on his debut.

The following year, he abandoned motor racing to devote himself to training for the 2012 London Paralympic Games.

He brought back two gold medals and four years later two more from Rio de Janeiro.

He won the Rome marathon in 2010 and New York the following year.

For Italy, Zanardi is a star, "the one who has no legs but races in the marathon", as he presents himself.

And for the disabled world, he is a global standard bearer.

- Charisma and courage -

"With his results and his charisma, he has changed our perception of disability," Gazzetta dello Sport wrote on Saturday, one of the three Italian sports newspapers which, in the aftermath of the accident devoted their front page to Zanardi.

He has written four books, presented television shows and performed a voiceover for the Italian version of animated film Cars.

As a sportsman he continues to win by relying on his "five-seconds rule".

"When you have given everything, go on for five seconds. This is where the others can't do it anymore."

Just a few weeks ago, Zanardi participated with other sportsmen in a television programme called "Never give up", to support Italy during the coronavirus lockdown.

"It is always possible that lightning strikes me a second time. But to stay at home to avoid it would be to stop living. So no, I choose life," he said in 2014.