Italy’s Olympic Past

Mon, 07/16/2012 - 09:05

Pictures courtesy of Empics

As the world awaits the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, Keith Gregson recalls past Olympics held (or not) in Italy.

In the early days of the revived Olympic movement, Italy was uniquely unfortunate in her attempts to host the Olympics since, if all had gone to plan, one of the very first games would have been based upon Rome.

A Shaky Start

When Italy came into the Olympic frame in the early 20th century, the first of the modern Olympics had already been held in Athens (in 1896). The two Olympics which followed, in Paris in 1900 and in St Louis in 1904, were little more than sideshows to world exhibitions while an ‘intermediate’ games held again in Athens in 1906 has rarely been included in the record books. As the Olympic star began to wane, Italy was earmarked for picking up the revival by taking charge of events in 1908. In 1906, (before major preparations really got under way), Vesuvius erupted and funds put aside for the games were needed to repair the damage done to key areas in the south. Sadly, Rome had to withdraw – London stepped in at a late stage and, with the newly constructed White City already in operation, went on to host a highly successful games.

1896 Olympics in Athens
Olympics in Athens - in 1896

Nor did Italy’s run of bad luck end there. After the introduction of the Winter Olympics in the 1920s, it was only a question of time before northern Italy would be given an opportunity to act as hosts. With Cortina d’Ampezzo as the main centre, Italy was granted the games proposed for 1944. Because of the Second World War, both the 1940 Winter Olympics (in Japan) and the proposed 1944 Italian Olympics were abandoned. After the war, politics took over with the 1948 Winter Olympics going to ‘neutral’ Switzerland.

The Luck Changes

Four years later, a further blow was delivered to Italian hopes. Despite a certain initial reluctance, Norway agreed to accept an invitation to act as hosts for the 1952 games. The choice was probably coloured by the post-war readmission of Germany and Japan to the winter competition and the feeling that it would be ‘more appropriate’ to take the games northwards. Finally, in 1956, Cortina d’Ampezzo’s persistence prevailed and this successful bid heralded a period a four golden years in the history of Italian Olympics.

Although the games held at Cortina were full of interest and reflect creditably on Italian organisation, they got off to an amusingly inauspicious start. As the opening date approached, there was a lack of sufficient snow to ensure the running of a number of major events. Snow was imported only to herald a major downfall of the stuff and staff had to work feverishly to remove what they had just put down.

Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo
Winter Olympic Games in Cortina d'Ampezzo - 1956

Once under way, the Cortina games led to a number of significant firsts. It was the first time that the Soviet Union had sent representatives to the winter games and they were to depart at the head of the medals list. Italian television also put down a pointer for the future with the extent and nature of its coverage of the games. Some events were watched live on television for the first time, a pleasure that was shared with other European countries thanks to the emergence of Eurovision. The ice rink on Lake Misurna was a great success – capable of holding over 8000 spectators and a record entry of almost 1000 competitors from 32 nations was recorded.

Mixed Fortunes

Countries usually associated with winter sports – the then Soviet Union, Austria, Switzerland plus the North American and Nordic countries, dominated major positions in the medals table. Italy enjoyed success in both the two-man and four-man bobsledding and Britain entered a number of competitions with little success. There was hope for the future, though, as a team from the British army entered the cross-country races for the first time, introducing a long and successful link between army training and Winter Olympic success.

Star of the games was Austria’s Toni Sailer who dominated the men’s alpine skiing events. The games were of historic interest too. They marked the continuance of a switch of interest away from the ‘Nordic’ distance events which had dominated the early years to the more visually exciting Alpine races with which most of us now associate the Winter Olympics.

The Big One

Four years later, in 1960, came an even greater coup with the arrival of the Summer Olympics in Italy. It was not before time. Both Paris and London had already hosted these games on two separate occasions.

Cassius Clay - Rome 1960
Cassius Clay - Gold at the 1960 Games in Rome

History generally approves of the Rome games. Their organisers, conscious perhaps of the earlier origins of both the city of Rome and the Olympic themselves, tried to tie ancient and modern neatly together, often holding events near to or inside sites associated with ancient Rome. Not that the games were totally based in the capital. The sailing events were centred upon Naples and the rowing was held on Lake Albano.

The Rome Olympics will perhaps be best remembered for providing the world with its first real glimpse of the man universally recognised as the greatest sportsman of the twentieth century – Muhammad Ali. Only 18 years old and fighting then as Cassius Clay, he won the light-heavyweight boxing gold medal. As news of his success spread, interviews and TV exposure introduced us to both the comic and politically serious sides of his nature which, over the years, have made him such an intriguing personality.

Trans-Atlantic Triumphs

Another American – Wilma Rudolph, dominated events on the track. Although very sickly as a child, she survived to gain three gold medals in 1960 – in the 100 metres, 200 metres and 4 x 100 relay. Britain too came away with the usual handful of medals. Two of the most successful British competitors were walker Don Thompson and swimmer Anita Lonsbrough. Female athletes Dorothy Hyman, Dorothy Shirley and Carole Quinton all brought home medals as did athletes Peter Radford and Stan Vickers. Brian Phelps, possibly Britain’s best-known diver, took bronze in the men’s platform event.

Brian Phelps - Rome 1960
Brian Phelps (on the left) - Bronze at the 1960 Games in Rome

The Italians also enjoyed some success with fencer Edoardo Mangiarotti, very much a local hero, adding to a large haul of medals built up over previous Olympics. Cyclist Sante Gaiardoni dominated his field and Livio Berruti became the first non-American to win gold in the 200 metres. The ever popular D’Inzeo brothers, Raimondo and Piero, took equestrian gold and silver in the men’s individual jumping.

Stay tuned for updates regarding Italy's participation to this year London Olympic Games.