Once were heroes… Fallen angels

Once were heroes… Fallen angels

This is the second of two blog posts about Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

In Once were heroes… shining stars, we revisited the stories of Usain Bolt, Joseph Schooling and Micheal Phelps, maybe the most memorable Rio heroes, that combined for a total of 9 gold medals.

All medals have a reverse and Olympic ones make no exception: while the three men I just named ascended the highest heights of sports glory, four girls were hiding in a dark corner at the opposite end of the trajectory, sharing a tale of falls and painful defeats.

It is now time to look at the other side and into the life of few athletes whose names are not to be found on Rio Olympic champions lists.

Falls – Part I

Pole vaulting is a raffinate exercise of subtlety. In order to excel, an athlete has to perfectly control every fraction of his body and mind, while melting together speed, precision, grace, power, guts, iron muscles, lightness. In no other track and field specialty, a human body falls from a higher height than pole vault.

Yelena Isinbayeva jumped thousands of times in the long decade where she dominated this discipline and was trained to fall like no other. Nevertheless, the fall she had to experience while preparing for Rio, was of a kind she never endured before. A kind that hurts badly.

Nothing in Yelena childhood and family background anticipated that she would become one of the most successful athletes ever. Born from a humble family, her father is a plumber, her mother a shop assistant, she approached sports at the age of 5, when her parents enrolled her in gymnastics in her hometown Volgograd, Russia. At that time, they both worked full time and were looking for a way to keep Yelena busy.

She trained as a gymnast until at the age of 15 she attained the height of 1.74 meters and became too tall to be competitive in gymnastics. One day, her coach suggested she tried track and fields and pole vault but Yelena objected that she had never heard of such discipline. Her coach told her that if she did not like it, she did not have to continue. She ended up listening to the advice and her brilliant career was started.

Yelena Isinbayeva was undefeated for almost six consecutive years between 2004 and 2009, establishing an amazing 30 world records along the way. She was the first woman to pass the mythical bar of 5 meters, both indoor and outdoor and improved the world record by a total 24 centimeters. She was named Female Athlete of the Year by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) in 2004, 2005 and 2008.

Many coaches analyzed Yelena jumps and observed that what sets her apart from any other woman specialist is her exemplary mastering of the so-called “L-Phase”, where it is vital to use the pole’s rebound to convert horizontal speed into height. They credited her gymnastic background for such a better gesture. Yelena explained her approach to pole vaulting with simpler words: “I like that I can control my body” she said once. “I like to fly. I like those feelings when you’re over the bar. It’s more beautiful than other track and field events.”

I witnessed one of her world records a summer night in Monaco in 2008, where she raised the bar to 5.04 meters and passed it. Yelena is a very communicative athlete: I remember that night her eyes full of joy and absolute determination.

In an unconventional move for an athlete of her caliber, who can easily make several hundred thousands of dollars at each appearance, in 2010 Isinbayeva decided to take a break from competitions.

She came back one year later, to face a fiercer pool of opponents. After conquering a bronze medal in 2012 London Olympic games she started cultivating the wish of a retirement in style, after Rio Olympics, a gold medal around her neck.

Another couple of years passed, Isinbayeva took another break to give birth to her daughter Eva in June 2014. In December of that same year another member of Russian athletics team, Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaliy, appeared in a documentary on German television uncovering a large-scale doping fraud: Russian athletics officials supplied banned substances in exchange for 5% of athletes earnings and falsified tests together with doping control officers. Successive investigations revealed implication of Russian government, RUSADA (Russia anti-doping agency), secret services, WADA (World anti-doping agency), IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations). Two former directors of RUSADA died in 2016; one of them had just approached the newspapers telling that he would publish a book on Russia state doping.

The scandal eventually led International Olympic Committee to ban all Russian track and field athletes from 2016 Rio Olympic games. In August 2016, WADA reported that Yuliya Stepanova’s account, containing confidential information like her personal address, had been hacked while no other athlete profile had been accessed. Stepanova and her husband had fled Russia after appearing on German television in 2014; after giving a fundamental contribution to the fight to re-establish transparency in sports, today they seek asylum in foreign countries and fear for their lives. They have been completely abandoned by sports institutions.

The ban was the sunset of Yelena Isinbayeva Olympic dreams: she was denied the possibility to compete, despite a spotless 14 years career where she never tested positive to an anti-doping examination. In a press conference, she said: “I will never agree with, and never forgive, my exclusion from the Olympics”. Paradoxically, being banned as a result of a doping scandal, she has been elected by  fellows to serve an 8-year term on the International Olympic Committee’s athletes commission.

After Rio, during the Russian nationals, Yelena Isinbayeva posted the 2016 world leading jump of 4.90m and finally announced retirement.

Falls – Part II

The problem, in sports today, is that often the show on display on our TVs is pure fiction. We pretend to believe that what we see is real, but we know that it’s not true. Athletes take forbidden substances that enhance their performances and in doing so are covered by organizers, sponsors, sports institutions, that all happily sing with one voice “the show must go on”. Illegal betting alters results of football, tennis and many others sports worldwide.

From the very moment sponsors and television money invited themselves to the party and started crunching sportsmanship ideals, the race between doping and anti-doping technologies is as intense as the chase to new records.

The reality is that Russian athletes banned from Rio 2016 track and field were not the only cheats. Others have been unmasked during the games, many have probably gone uncaught, some will fall and will have to return their medals in the years to come when anti-doping tests will be repeated on samples collected in Rio. In this situation, believing in sports today is almost impossible.

I said “almost” because from time to time, we witness stories like the one of Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin.

The episode has become iconic, but I wish to recall it to those who missed it.

Heat 2 of women 5000 meters. Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin line up with favorite Almaz Ayana to chase a place in the final. In the second part of the race, while athletes are grouped in a confused bunch, the two girls collide and crash on the blue track.

Hamblin remembers: “(one moment after the fall I was down, thinking) What’s hit me? Why am I on the ground? And then suddenly there’s this hand on my shoulder, like, ‘Get up, get up! We have to finish this!’ And I was like, ‘Yep, you’re right. It’s the Olympic Games. We have to finish this!’ ”.

The voice was D’Agostino’s who jumped back on her feet and was about to restart running when she saw that Hamblin was still not moving. Nikki raised herself and the two girls resumed the race, but D’Agostino was clearly hurting and soon collapsed again. This time, Hamblin was there to lend a hand.

Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino fall in 5000m Heat 2
Abbey D’Agostino stumbles on Nikki Hamblin in 5000m Heat 2
Get up! We have to finish this!
Get up! We have to finish this!
Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D'Agostino crying on the finish line
Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino crying on the finish line
D'Agostino in a weelchair greeted by Hamblin
D’Agostino in a wheelchair greeted by Hamblin

4 and 1/2 laps, almost 2000 meters, were still to go. Hamblin injury being way less serious than D’Agostino’s, Nikki passed the finishing line well behind the other athletes, in 16:43.61. Exhausted, she turned around and saw D’Agostino staggering down the track; Abbey finally crossed the line at the last place, more than two minutes after the winner, with a time of 17:10.02.

Nikki Hamblin waited for Abbey D’Agostino on the finish line, passed her arms around the other’s neck, then the two girls cried together.

Abbey D’Agostino had run for more than two kilometers with a torn cruciate ligament and was in too much pain to leave the track on her own feet. When race officers urged for a wheelchair Nikki helped Abbey to sit down and kept looking at her as she was carried away.

“I’m so impressed and inspired that she did that” Hamblin later declared and her words are the best possible end of the story.

The metaphorical medal that Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin won in Rio is more precious than Schooling, Bolt and Phelps ones and even more deserved than the one denied to Yelena Isinbayeva. It is a medal made of transparent, clean and fresh air, a substance that in today sports is much more needed and rare than gold.


Original images of this sportsmanship tale can be found here. Watch them, they are really refreshing.


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Once were heroes… Shining stars

Once were heroes… Shining stars

Lights went down on 2016 Rio de Janeiro summer Olympic Games a few weeks ago and athletes from different disciplines are again spread around the world.

National football championships replaced badminton, Judo and synchronized swimming on our TVs and sport fans habits are back to normal routines. However, how amazing it is, every four years, to observe sports stop worldwide, as stars athletes move in the Olympic village along with perfect unknowns and compete for the same objective! Olympic Games are a comet: a bright periodic collision between ideals of sport and reality of money.

In this cycle of two posts, I will take you through the stories of a handful of Olympic heroes, examples of talent and dedication that enlightened Rio nights. Today I start with two phenomenal athletes, bearing destiny in their names.

Catch me if  you can

Bolt noun (LIGHTNING):  a flash of lightning that looks like a white line against the sky

“I am a living legend”, Usain Bolt said at a press conference on 12th of August 2016, after dominating the 200 meters final in Rio and no one could really argue. The statement came just before the curtain fell on his last Olympics, enshrined by Jamaican relay team win in 4*100, leading Bolt to his third triple-gold medal.

As of today, Usain Bolt has nine gold medals in Olympic Games, 11 in Athletics World championships; he holds the world record in 100m, 200m and 4*100m. Before him, no sprinter had even come close to such records, and the one that will equal such performances is probably not born yet.

Usain is today 30 years old and the remaining of his athlete career is likely to be a sweet celebration of his legendary gestures, a few more displays of his trademark lightning sign, retirement and immediate induction into track and field hall of fame, a “best of all times” tag close to his name.

After his tenure is over, will his records be what we’ll remember best of Usain Bolt?

History will tell but, besides his monster performances, the Jamaican surely deserves to be remembered for the way he turned track and field sprint disciplines upside down. From the very first moment he appeared on the running track, all in him seemed to be coming from another world, starting from his features making him better suited for volley or basketball than sprint. Usain is 1.95m and, while his competitors are often short and very compact, he is slim and abnormally tall. His reaction times, not the best in class, and his body structure slightly handicapped him in his late days in 100m. On the other hand, his unusual height makes him simply unbeatable in the 200m, once he can fully develop his speed.

Usain Bolt persona is unusual too, to say the least. Before him, sprinters used to be arrogant, nervous, and unapproachable. When the Jamaican appeared on the scene, he started a carnival of his own: he would smile and play with cameras in the most terrifying moments, just before Olympics 100m starter gunshot. During the race, he would relax, slow down, hit his chest in a dominating sign, turn and look around, all before the finish line. Then he would smile, again and again. In case you missed it,  give a look to Rio 200m semi-finals finishing and appreciate how Usain plays with Andre De Grasse in a hilarious “catch me if you can” movie remake.

The show is not over, yet, but the end is coming closer. After Usain Bolt retirement grim athletes will likely take possession of sprint again and world-class athletics will no longer be as fun. He has been the fastest but also one of the coolest dudes on Earth and for almost a decade he managed to make us believe that 100m in around nine seconds is as easy as a smile.

Maybe this is the biggest lightning Bolt legacy.

23 to 1

School verb [ T ]: to train a person or animal to do something

I have been living in Singapore for almost three years and, since I moved here, I am intrigued and fascinated by this small country. What startles me most is how everything is carefully planned and relentlessly executed.

This systematic approach led Singapore to great achievements: the country is today a full-scale lab where social, technological, economic experiments happen every month, most of the time ending up in an improvement of collective conditions of living. Of course, the medal has a dark side, but I am not going to talk about it in this post.

Before Rio, Singapore constant performance improvement score was not showing up at all in sports. After participating to 15 previous editions of the Games, Singapore Olympic medal count was stuck at a sad zero (gold medals), two (silver), two (bronze).

At the opposite side of Olympic success spectrum stood Michael Phelps, the almost unbeatable swimmer who, before lining up for his fifth Olympic games in Rio had already won an amazing 18 gold medals, holding the enviable title of most decorated Olympian of all times.

Allow me to roll back time to a morning in 2008 when U.S. swimming team visited a Singapore club where a 13-years old local kid, named Joseph Schooling, was training. Phelps was part of the team and back then had already won six gold medals, more Olympic metal than a talented athlete can dream of.

Schooling recalled that morning in a recent interview: “They came to the country club that I trained at, everyone just rushed up and was like “it’s Michael Phelps! It’s Michael Phelps!’ and I really wanted a picture … It was very early in the morning and I was so shocked, I couldn’t really open my mouth”.

After that morning, Phelps continued dominating the scene for the years to come: the only upset came from South African Chad Le Clos, who beat him in London 2012 Olympics 200 meters butterfly. After London, Phelps announced his retirement but came back in 2014, when he started preparing for next Olympics in Rio where he wished to right his wrong towards Le Clos.

One year after meeting Phelps, inspired by the American and supported by his family, Joseph Schooling, the young Singaporean, moved to the United States, first going to Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida before attending the University of Texas, where he became a member of the Texas Longhorns swimming team, one of the top collegiate swim programs. Across the years, Joseph underwent continuous improvement in butterfly style swimming. He easily qualified for Rio 2016 Olympics, where he was bound to meet Michael Phelps again, but this time, the encounter was set to happen in the pool.

While everyone was looking at the unfolding of rivalry between Phelps and Le Clos, an underrated Schooling dominated his 100m butterfly semifinals on 11th of August. When swimmers positioned themselves on the starting blocks again for the final the day after, Goliath (Phelps) was in lane 2  and David (Schooling) in lane 4.

Many know the end of the story: Schooling claimed the win against his personal hero Phelps in one of the most surprising Olympic results ever. He led the race from the start and in an unseen final rush, Phelps, Le Clos and László Cseh of Hungary, touched the wall together, exactly three-quarters of seconds later, clinching a collective silver medal.

During the victory lap after the race, Schooling turned to Phelps and said, “Dude this is crazy, out of this world, I don’t know how to feel right now”. Phelps smiled and simply replied, “I know”.

Upon his return to his country, Schooling, the first ever-Singaporean Olympic gold medalist, was acclaimed like a God. He received a prize of one Million Singapore dollars (~730000 US $) and a parade was organized to celebrate his glory.

Today Olympic gold medals count stands at 23 (for Phelps) against 1 (for Singapore), but for this little country, such a slim account could not taste sweeter.


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Don’t stop Tardelli

Don’t stop Tardelli

The Story

This post is an “emotional transfer” experiment.

Any psychologist could explain how who we are is the result of experiences that were instrumental in developing our personality; soul is like film in photography and bright moments we live, especially when we are kids or teenagers, leave permanent marks on it. From the moment we step into adult age, we keep eating Proust Madeleines for breakfast, every day. Most of the times, we just pretend we don’t care… we’re big guys (or girls) now.

“From the moment we step into adult age, we keep eating Proust Madeleines for breakfast, every day. Most of the times, we just pretend we don’t care…”

Those marking episodes are often very personal and would hardly make sense if we tried to explain them to our acquaintances. Still, individuals that grew up in the same time and place share collective memories. There is a scene in movie “Goodbye Lenin!” where the main character desperately looks for perished stocks of pickles, easily available in East Germany during the cold war. His mom felt in a coma before Berlin wall collapse and had recently awakened; surrounding her with Communist era memorabilia, he wishes to recreate for her an emotionally comfortable landscape. Whoever grew up in Eastern Germany and neighboring countries still associates old Trabant cars, pickles and certain Communist songs to childhood: if childhood was good, they will smile when they see a Trabant.

In this post, I will share with people who grew up in other places, one of the most defining moments for Italians, especially men, today in their mid-40s. I would like you to feel at least a little bit what we felt in that long summer of 1982.

I was born in Puglia, southern Italy, in July 1972 and back then I just turned 10; outside of Italy, eyes of the world in summer of ’82 were probably looking at short and deadly Falklands war between Argentina and Great Britain; I remember TV constantly reporting huge casualties on both sides.

I should not say, but in Italy we really did not care about Falklands war. If you found yourself walking on Italian streets in the night of 11 of July, you would have thought that some strange bomb had killed the whole country population while leaving buildings, cars and everything else untouched. That night we were ALL watching the football World Cup final.

Italy had a difficult preparation for the competition and was clearly an underdog. In the second round robin, we faced the two best teams, Argentina and Brazil and no one would ever have bet a dime on us. Surprisingly, we won both matches. Yes, in Italy, when speaking about 1982 football World Cup squad we say “We”. You would believe that there were 50 millions of Italians on Spain pitches that summer. Still today, some of us mentally spend a few refreshing minutes on those sunny pitches every year.

“In Italy, when speaking about 1982 football World Cup squad we say “We”. You would believe that there were 50 millions of Italians on Spain pitches that summer.”

So we find ourselves playing the final against Deutschland team, packed with stars and led by mighty striker Karl Heinz Rummenigge.

And-we-kick-their-ass-big-time

Paolo Rossi scored our first goal and deserves a story of its own. Then at the sixty-ninth minute, Gaetano Scirea passes the ball to Tardelli, just outside of the penalty area. He adjusts it on his left foot and, while fading, shoots a precise, beautiful, strong strike which the keeper cannot reach.

And then Tardelli starts running across the field. The whole Italian team runs after him but for a long moment, no-one can catch him. Marco Tardelli keeps screaming his incredible joy in the air. This image is timeless and still moves our souls almost 35 years later. Every Italian ran with Tardelli that afternoon; we were young, bold and shameless and we would have loved if that run could never stop.

Marco Tardelli and Claudio Gentile at 1982 football world cup in Spain

“Every Italian ran with Tardelli that afternoon; we were young, bold and shameless and we would have loved if that run could never stop.”

Many years ago, I read a collection of short stories by Gabriele Romagnoli and one of the novels was a tribute to that precise moment of summer of ’82. It’s a dialog between two players, in a locker room lost in the middle of some Italian province. I’ll do my best to translate without making too much of an offense to the writer.

Don’t stop Tardelli

They are the last two, all the others are already in the corridor, waiting to get on the pitch. The right wing is nervously tying and untying his shoe strings, then he beats his cleats on the ground.

The left-wing rolls his head back, closes his eyes and holds the hanger.

Right wing is ready to go; he is almost getting up but left wing starts talking, still.

Left wing: “What if they did not stop him?”

Right wing: “They did not stop who?”

Left wing: “Tardelli. What if they did not stop him after he scored the goal in World Cup final? You know, we watched that scene a thousand times on TV: he runs shouting, shaking  his fists, runs so fast, those spirited eyes…”

Right wing: “So what?”

Left wing: “Then the others reach him and drag him down. But what if they did not do it? What if no-one stopped Tardelli?”

Right wing: “And? What would have happened?”

Left wing opens his eyes.

Left wing: “If he kept running, with that orgasm inside, if he went out of the stadium shouting, people would have followed. He would have kept running with all that force. He would have never stopped, millions of people behind him, running after a winner who wants to win, again and again. That’s it! If we all followed Tardelli, would that have changed the world?”

Right wing looks at him and shakes his head.

Right wing: “Nothing would have changed, he would have felt down on the sideline. A player is a player and does not get out of the pitch. No-one would have run after him!”

Left wing (nervous): “Oh, really? Well, if today I strike the winning goal, don’t even try to stop me!”

Right wing gets close, puts a hand on his shoulder, looks in his eyes.

Right wing: “No winning goal today, dude. We fixed this match, we’re bound to lose”.

End of the story

Gaetano Scirea died in 1989, in a car accident while scouting local football talents in Poland.

We still call Paolo Rossi “Pablito”, to remember those Spanish nights.

Tardelli eventually got stopped that afternoon, but he never really got out of the pitch. 35 years later, it’s still common to see him running on TV, young, bold and shameless.

Italy won another title in 2006, after kicking once again Deutschland ass. But no football World Cup will be like 1982. Ever.

Other medias

If you speak Italian and wish to complete the Amarcord experience, you should also:

If you want to understand how Paolo Rossi could be convicted in a match-fixing scandal and then be the best scorer in 1982 football World Cup, read “Viva l’Italia!” on this blog.

Non Fermate Tardelli

Sono rimasti solo loro due nello spogliatoio, gli altri sono già nel corridoio, in attesa di entrare in campo. L’ala destra slaccia e riallaccia le scarpe. Batte i tacchetti sul pavimento. L’ala sinistra tiene la testa rovesciata all’indietro, gli occhi chiusi, le mani aggrappate a due attaccapanni. L’ala destra è pronta, accenna ad alzarsi. L’ala sinistra parla senza muoversi: “E se non lo fermavano?”
“Se non fermavano chi?”
“Tardelli. Se non fermavano Tardelli dopo che aveva segnato il gol nella finale dei Mondiali. Sai quella scena vista mille volte in tv: lui che corre urlando, i pugni chiusi, le gambe a mille, la faccia da pazzo”
“Sì, e allora?”
“Poi arrivano gli altri, i compagni, e lo tirano giù. Ma se non lo avessero fatto? Se non avessero fermato Tardelli?”
“Beh? Che cosa sarebbe successo?”
“Ecco l’ala sinistra apre gli occhi Se avesse continuato a correre con quell’orgasmo dentro, se fosse uscito dallo stadio urlando, e la gente dietro, via, con tutta la forza, senza più fermarsi, milioni di persone dietro uno che ha vinto, con la voglia di vincere ancora. Ecco, se fossimo andati tutti dietro a Tardelli, sarebbe cambiato il mondo?”

L’ala destra lo guarda, scuote il capo: “Non cambiava niente, cadeva da solo sulla linea di fondo. Un calciatore è un calciatore, non esce dal campo. E nessuno gli andrebbe dietro”
“No? Beh, se oggi segno il gol della vittoria, tu non provare a fermarmi”
L’ala sinistra gli si avvicina, gli mette una mano sulla spalla: “Nesssun gol della vittoria, Tardelli, questa partita è venduta. Venduta a perdere”.