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When Brazil retired the World Cup this year, defeating Italy in the final game, a rumor began circulating in Rome that the South Americans had been stuck with a phony trophy. Eugenio Danese, Italy's top soccer writer, reported that he had been told the authentic trophy was buried in the Puglia region of southern Italy. His story is involved. In the spring of 1966 the cup was stolen while being displayed at a stamp show in London. Eight days later it was found, wrapped in newspaper, by an inquisitive dog named Pickles in the garden of a southeast London home. But Danese has been told the cup that was recovered is not the original. A man from Puglia is supposed to have been in London at the time of the theft, met the thief and given him a $10,000 deposit just to borrow the cup for a few days. He had an exact copy made and returned the copy to the thief, taking the original back to Italy, where he buried it.
Even without this added twist, the World Cup theft and the ensuing chase had all the elements of a thriller: Scotland Yard, a slim, sallow fugitive who was believed to have a scarred face, a $37,500 ransom demand, a detective-inspector named Leonard Buggy, a black van driving slowly on the Kennington Park Road, men leaping over garden walls, and finally—with by now all England breathless—Pickles. The dog even became a television star.
After its recovery the English kept the World Cup in bank vaults and named a custodian for it. He was a football association accountant, Ken Young. When the 1970 World Cup matches approached, Young had mixed feelings. "Naturally I wanted us to win again," he said, "but, my goodness, if we did I wasn't at all keen on another four years of looking after the blessed thing."
Living with a precious trophy can be discomforting. The story is told of one young U.S. Amateur winner who took his cup home and proudly displayed it on the mantel. It stayed there until one evening when he invited a jeweler friend to dinner. The guest ruined the golfer's appetite by informing him the gold loving cup was probably worth $10,000. Surprised and worried, the champion put in a late-evening call to Joseph C. Dey, then the executive director of the U.S. Golf Association, who was sleeping soundly in New York. Was the trophy really worth that much? the golfer wanted to know. Absolutely, said Dey. The young man spent a restless night and the cup was in a safe-deposit box the next morning.
One of the most costly awards that a winner gets to keep forever is the $10,000 jeweled, gold, velvet-plush and alligator Hickok Belt, which goes to the professional athlete of the year. It is generally regarded by the winners—and not because of its financial value—as the ultimate award, elevating the athlete above all his fellow professionals. "To be voted the best of the pros is a real honor," Willie Mays declares. Maury Wills, however, has no such warm sentiments about his Hickok Belt. He removed a diamond to make a ring for his wife and when the Internal Revenue Service found out it forced Wills to pay income tax on the entire belt. If an athlete detaches even one diamond chip, the IRS men close in. Wills fought the case in court but lost.
Other Hickok winners have cannibalized their belts for jewelry, too. Ingemar Johansson turned the 26 one-half-carat diamonds on his into a necklace for his wife Birgit. When they were divorced he made no attempt to get the jewels back. He has replaced the diamonds with fakes and says the belt still looks as good as ever.
The Hickok Manufacturing Company patterned its award after Ring magazine's famous boxing belts. Though worth only about one-tenth of the Hickok, these continue to be avidly sought by fighters as esteemed badges of success. The Ring belts are gold-plated, beribboned and set with semiprecious stones. What does a Ring belt represent? Muhammad Ali says, "I'll tell you. My career—14 years of hard fighting, both as an amateur and a professional. When I was having all my legal problems I thought of having a public burning of the belt. I felt the burning of the belt, with its red, white and blue colors, would show the injustice of what was happening. But I'm glad I didn't burn it. It is what I've got to show. It wouldn't be honorable to do anything to it or change it. I'm going to keep it like it is."
Once Ali's belt almost was burned. It happened on the night Malcolm X was murdered. That evening Ali and his assistant trainer, Bundini Brown, were eating in a Turkish restaurant in Chicago when Ali learned the apartment house in which he lived, and where the belt was kept, was on fire. "When we got there the building was covered with icicles," Bundini remembers. "I thought about the belt. I know that you can't ride the subway wearing it, but it means something. I went up the wooden stairs behind the apartment. It was slippery, all the water turning into ice. When I got to the apartment, about five flights up, the living-room floor was burned out. I could look down two floors through the hole. I walked around the edge and went to the closet. The belt was in a box and I took it with me. When I was fired by Ali, I carried it with me to New York." Bundini later used the belt as collateral for a $500 loan, which was eventually repaid. Both the belt and Bundini have since returned to Ali.
The hock shop price of an award has little to do with its sporting value, of course. The flag that flew all summer at Shea Stadium, emblematic of the Mets' 1969 World Series win, was stitched up last winter by a sporting-goods house for a few hundred dollars. The Met front office had ordered a glorious "real" World Series banner from a flag company in New York City. But that firm never came through. "We are very busy," they told Mets Promotion Director Arthur Richman when he complained in June of the delay. Two months later the company was still busy, but not on the Mets' banner. By September the Mets had lost two pennant races—this year's and last year's. Richman canceled the order.
A certain trail of things undelivered, uncollected or not being what they seem runs through the trophy business. For all the mystique of Olympic gold medals, it turns out they are not gold at all, just silver like the second-place ones. For years frugal host countries were using so little gold wash to cover the first-place medals that they often wore bare and looked silver. Ten years ago the International Olympic Committee decided to set some minimum standards. The first-place medal now must be made of at least 925/1,000 fine silver (which is sterling) and gilded with six grams of gold. The cost to the host country is about $40 per medal. This may appear miserly, but remember that nearly 400 gold medals are handed out at an Olympics.