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Borsari, Nino (1911–1996)

by Ilma Martinuzzi O'Brien

This article was published online in 2020

Nino Borsari (1911—1996), Olympic cyclist, retailer, and community leader, was born on 14 December 1911 at Cavezzo, Modena, Italy, son of Rosa Borsari. He did not know his father and was raised by two of his aunts after his mother married. Nino’s early years were spent in poverty, but the gift of a racing bicycle by a benevolent employer changed his life. He became an Italian youth cycling champion and at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, United States of America, he won a gold medal for Italy in the 4,000-metre team pursuit race. After the games he competed in races at Madison Square Garden, New York. Returning to Italy, he turned professional and had modest success in road racing, including a second place in the Milan-Modena race (1934) and a victory at Piacenza (1935).

Invited to Australia to participate in the Victorian centenary 1,000-mile (1609 km) cycle road race in October 1934, Borsari delighted the crowds with his happy disposition and won the alpine stage from Mt Buffalo to Omeo. Two years later he accepted an offer to compete in the South Australian centenary cycling season. His six-month temporary admission permit was extended twice until May 1938, during which time he raced in Sydney and was employed in the showrooms at the Myer Emporium in Melbourne. Returning to Australia again in March 1940 for professional cycling engagements in Sydney, he was not interned despite his status as an enemy alien when Italy entered World War II in June. The following month he was investigated by security and intelligence officers, who reported that he had ‘no political leanings’ and ‘appears to take no interest in anything but sport’ (NAA C123). He was, however, barred from professional cycling by the New South Wales league in September.

In 1941 Borsari opened a bicycle store in Carlton, Melbourne, on the corner of Lygon and Grattan streets. On 20 December that year at the Sacred Heart Church, Carlton, he married Fanny Eugenia Cester, an Italian-born opera student who had migrated to Melbourne two years earlier. He applied for naturalisation in April 1944 and, to strengthen his case, sought the assistance of Arthur Calwell, a noted friend of the Italian community in Melbourne who in 1945 became Australia’s first minister of immigration. The application was approved in March 1946.

After the war Borsari’s cycling store flourished. He expanded his range to include household items, giftware, jewellery, and imported goods, including Italian magazines and newspapers. A prominent neon sign featuring a cyclist was placed above the building in the late 1940s, and the Borsari Emporium became a meeting place for Carlton’s growing Italian immigrant community. He made a comeback to professional cycling in 1948 and competed in motor racing in the early 1950s, driving a Cisitalia sports car, for which he had the Australian agency. By 1961 his business had expanded sufficiently for him to establish a separate bicycle and sports store in the building next door. The location became known as Borsari’s Corner.

A well-known and respected community leader, Borsari passionately believed in the power of sport to break down social barriers. He formed an International Cycling Club in Melbourne in 1952, which aimed to help immigrant cyclists to integrate, and he was active in the League of Victorian Wheelmen. With his wife he was associated with the foundation in 1948 of the Juventus Soccer Club, serving several terms as president (1949–54, 1956–60, 1965–66, and 1971–72). He helped organise various other sporting activities, notably boxing, and during a business trip to Europe in 1955, he promoted the Melbourne Olympic Games in interviews with journalists.

In 1962 Borsari was made a knight of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic in recognition of ‘his keen and energetic promotion of Italo-Australian Associations of a sporting and recreational character’ (NAA A463). A ‘brilliant showman’ with a ‘dynamic personality,’ he was known variously as ‘Cavalier,’ the ‘King of Carlton,’ and the ‘Mayor of Little Italy’ (Carter 1996, 12). With his wife he was involved in a range of community organisations and charitable activities, including fundraising for the Yooralla Society of Victoria, the Salvation Army, and the Royal Children’s Hospital. In 1969 he stood unsuccessfully as an Australian Labor Party candidate for the Melbourne City Council, campaigning for the preservation of the historical character of Carlton’s buildings.

Borsari suffered a serious road accident in 1978, when he was knocked off his bicycle while riding home. He fell into a coma and required brain surgery but recovered slowly. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1988) and survived by their daughter and son, he died on 31 March 1996 at Kew and was buried in Springvale cemetery. At Cavezzo, Italy, a velodrome had been named in his honour, and the Borsari Emporium building in Carlton was listed by the National Trust of Australia in 1989.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Borsari, Nino jnr. Personal communication
  • Broughton, Elizabeth. ‘Profile—Nino Borsari.’ Italian Historical Society Journal 11, no. 1 (January-June 2003): 28–30
  • Carter, Ron. ‘Big Wheel of Sports World.’ Australian, 11 April 1996, 12
  • Martin, Egilberto. Juve! Juve! Brooklyn, Vic.: Elabor Helena Nominees, 1990
  • Melbourne Observer ‘The Italians.’ 19 September 1971, 10–11
  • National Archives of Australia. A435, 1950/4/7195
  • National Archives of Australia. A463, 1962/2852
  • National Archives of Australia. C123, 2828
  • National Archives of Australia. D596, 1936/7507
  • Watkins, Sian. ‘Gold-Medal Cyclist Made a Golden Age for Carlton.’ Age (Melbourne), 5 April 1996, 16

Additional Resources

Citation details

Ilma Martinuzzi O'Brien, 'Borsari, Nino (1911–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/borsari-nino-30065/text37305, published online 2020, accessed online 27 February 2021.

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