16 March 2018

Emilio Lunghi - athlete

Italy's first Olympic medallist 

Emilio Lunghi in his Sport Pedestre Genova club vest
Emilio Lunghi in his Sport Pedestre
Genova club vest
Emilio Lunghi, a middle-distance runner who was the first to win an Olympic medal in the colours of Italy, was born on this day in 1886 in Genoa.

Competing in the 800 metres at the 1908 Olympic Games in London, Lunghi took the silver medal behind the American Mel Sheppard. In a fast-paced final, Lunghi's time was 1 minute 54.2 seconds, which was 1.8 seconds faster than the previous Olympic record buts still 1.4 seconds behind Sheppard.

It was the same Olympics at which Lunghi's compatriot Dorando Pietri was controversially disqualified after coming home first in the marathon, when race officials took pity on him after he collapsed from exhaustion after entering the stadium and helped him across the line.

A versatile athlete who raced successfully at distances from 400m up to 3,000m, Lunghi was national champion nine times in six events and is considered the first great star of Italian track and field.

An all-round sportsman, Lunghi was a talented gymnast, swimmer and boxer, but after winning a 3,000m-race in his home city he was encouraged to develop his potential as a runner by joining Sport Pedestre Genova, at the time the most important athletics club in Liguria.

In June 1906 in the historic city of Vercelli in Piedmont, Lunghi took his first national title in the 1500m. In the next six years, he was at different times Italian champion over 400m and 400m hurdles, 800m, 1000m (three times), 1500m (twice) and 1200m steeplechase.

Piazza di Siena in Rome's Borghese Gardens, where Lunghi won the 400m and 700m events to qualify for the 1908 Olympics
Piazza di Siena in Rome's Borghese Gardens, where Lunghi
won the 400m and 700m events to qualify for the 1908 Olympics
The qualifying competition for the 1908 Olympics took place on a track round the Piazza di Siena within the Borghese Gardens in Rome, watched by members of the Italian royal family. Lunghi won both the 400m and 1000m events, the latter in a world record time of 2 min 31 sec.

In London, Lunghi should have participated in the 1500m as well as the 800m, but the qualifying rules were that only the winners of the eight heats could take part in the final and Lunghi was beaten into second place in his by the Englishman Norman Hallows, although his time was quicker than any of the other seven heat winners.

As it was he had to content himself with the 800m, which Sheppard won after deciding to run a very fast first lap and building such a lead that Lunghi was unable to catch him, even though the American's second lap was almost seven seconds slower than his first.

After the Olympics, Lunghi spent a profitable year in North America, where he participated in 31 races and won 27, setting world records at 700 yards, 880yds and 1320yds (two-thirds of a mile).

Lunghi spent a year racing in the USA and Canada
Lunghi spent a year racing in
the USA and Canada
He had been invited to America by the Irish-American Athletics Club, for whom Sheppard raced. His accomplishments during his time there were recognised with honorary life membership of the club, on whose own track at Celtic Park stadium in Queens, New York, he set the world's fastest time for the 700yds.

His 880yd record came only eight days later at the Canadian championships Montreal.

Returning home, he continued to collect national titles, but his second Olympics was a disappointment.  At the Stockholm Games in 1912 he was eliminated at the semi-final stage in both the 400m and 800m events.

The First World War denied him a third Olympics and at the end of the conflict he announced his retirement from competitive running. A seaman by trade, he helped set up a trade union for dock workers and merchant seamen, his talent as an administrator earning him a role at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, where he was a judge and assistant to the newly-created Athletics Technical Commissioner.

He died in 1925 in Genoa at the age of just 39, having contracted a severe bacterial infection in the days before antibiotics had been discovered.

The Basilica of Sant'Andrea in Vercelli
Travel tip:

Vercelli, where Lunghi won his first Italian track title, a city of around 46,500 inhabitants some 85km (53 miles) west of Milan and about 75km (46 miles) northeast of Turin, is reckoned to be built on the site of one of the oldest settlements in Italy, dating back to 600BC. It is home to numerous Roman relics, the world's first publicly-funded university and the Basilica of Sant'Andrea, which is regarded as one of the most beautiful and best-preserved Romanesque buildings in Italy.

The Porto Antico in Genoa
The Porto Antico in Genoa
Travel tip:

Genoa is Italy's sixth largest city, with an urban population of more than 500,000 and up to 1.5 million living along the coastline.  The city's historic centre consists of numerous squares and narrow alleys, while there are also many fine palaces.  The waterfront area around the Porto Antico has been redeveloped to designs by Renzo Piano as a cultural centre, with the Aquarium and Museum of the Sea now among the city's major tourist attractions.

More reading:

Dorando Pietri and the most famous Olympic disqualication

How Luigi Beccali brought home Italy's first track Gold

Valentina Vezzali - Italy's most decorated female athlete 

Also on this day:

1940: The birth of controversial film maker Bernardo Bertolucci

1978: Italy in shock as Red Brigades kidnap former PM


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