20 May 2021

Ondina Valla - ground-breaking athlete

Italy’s first female Olympic champion

Ondina Valla broke new
ground for women in sport
Trebisonda ‘Ondina’ Valla, the first Italian woman to win an Olympic gold medal, was born on this day in 1916 in Bologna.

Known as Ondina reputedly after a journalist misspelled her unusual name, Valla won the 80m at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, where she also set a world record time in the semi-final.

The victory established Valla as an icon for Italy’s Fascist regime and as a heroine for Italian girls with sporting ambitions, her success breaking new ground for women in the face of considerable opposition to female participation in sport.

The Catholic Church’s attitude was that sport was not compatible with the standards of morality, modesty and domesticity it expected of women, while the view of Italy’s medical profession was that women should take only basic physical exercise if they wanted to maintain the level of health required for motherhood.

Benito Mussolini initially saw women as occupying a traditional role in the society he envisaged for the fascist ideal, supporting her husband and caring for his children within the family unit.

But he seized upon Valla’s success as a political opportunity, keen to portray her as an example of Italian Fascism’s dynamism and the potential for Italians to make their mark internationally.

Ondina was named Trebisonda by her father, Gaetano, a blacksmith, after the Turkish city of Trabzon, which he considered the most beautiful city in the world.

Ondina Valla (left) waits with four other athletes  for the final of the 80m hurdles in Berlin
Ondina Valla (left) waits with four other athletes 
for the final of the 80m hurdles in Berlin
Sporting prowess was evidently in her genes. She had four brothers, all of whom had athletic ability and by the age of 11 she stood out among her peers for her talent and determination to succeed. She and her classmate Claudia Testoni dominated the student championships in Bologna.

Valla excelled in sprint and hurdle races as well as the jumping events and was a national champion at the age of 14.

It was at this point, supposedly, that a journalist misspelled her name as Trebitonda, which in turn was further corrupted to Trebitondina, then Ondina, which translates in English as ‘little wave’. The name stuck to the extent that even her parents began to use it.

She joined the prestigious Virtus Atletica Bologna club and was selected for the Italian national team to go to the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, only for her participation to be blocked under pressure from the Vatican, who deemed it inappropriate for a 16-year-old to travel as the only female member of the team.

By the time the next Games came around, the Fascist government decided she represented their ideal of a healthy, strong national youth, even though she was a girl, and she was permitted to travel to Berlin in 1936, where Mussolini reasoned that a strong performance at ‘Hitler’s Games’ would be good for Italy’s standing. 

Valla excelled in hurdles events as well as sprints and the high jump
Valla excelled in hurdles events as well as
sprints and the high jump
She lived up to his expectations. She won the semi-final of the 80m hurdles in 11.6 seconds, beating the world record, which made her favourite for the final the following day. In a tight finish, Valla crossed the line first, with her former schoolmate and rival Testoni finishing fourth, denied a medal in a photo finish for the silver and bronze. 

At the age of 20 years and 78 days, she was the youngest Italian athlete of either sex to win an Olympic gold, a record that remained hers until 2004, when Elena Gigli was part of an Italian gold-medal winning water polo team at the Athens Games at the age of 19 years and 48 days.

Her Olympic triumph made Valla a popular figure in Fascist Italy and a symbol for Italian girls, helping to soften hostility towards women's participation in sport. The government were not slow to see the propaganda value of female athletic success, as they already did for the successes of male athletes.

In all, Valla won 15 national championships in different events, set a national high jump record that stood for 15 years and took three titles at the University Sports World Games in Tokyo. Back problems largely forced her out of further competition at the highest level, but led her into a new life.

Guglielmo De Lucchi, the back specialist who Valla married
Guglielmo De Lucchi, the back
specialist who Valla married
The orthopaedic specialist she consulted in a clinic of the Rizzoli Institute in Bologna in 1943 was a former high jumper, Guglielmo De Lucchi. He was seven years’ her senior but they were immediately attracted to one another and, a year later, were married, spending their honeymoon on a cycling holiday between Bologna and his hometown, Padua.

After they were married, she quit athletics and gave birth to a son, Luigi, in 1945, their only child. Guglielmo’s career took to Pescara on the Adriatic coast and then Chieti in Abruzzo before they settled in the capital of that region, L’Aquila, in 1955.

Sadly, Guglielmo died in 1964 at the age of just 56. Ondina lived for a further 42 years, passing away at the age of 90, spending her final years living with Luigi and his wife Gabriella, enjoying the company of her grandchildren, Claudio and Roberto.

She suffered a blow in 1978 when burglars stole her Olympic gold medal. It was never returned, but Italian athletics chief Primo Nebiolo, the Italian who would go on to be president of the IAAF, the world federation of athletics, arranged for an exact replica to be produced.

The attractive Piazza del Duomo is one of the main squares in L'Aquila
The attractive Piazza del Duomo is one of
the main squares in L'Aquila
Travel tip:

The capital of the Abruzzo region, L’Aquila was built in the 13th century on a hill within the valley of the Aterno river. Its construction was started by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, and completed by his son, Conrad IV of Germany. It was destroyed by Conrad’s brother, Manfred in 1259, but rebuilt by Charles I of Anjou, who surrounded it with walls.  The city suffered a devastating earthquake in 2009, which cost the lives of more than 300 people. Many of the buildings badly damaged by the earhquake have been restored, including the 12th century Basilica di Santa Maria di Collemaggio, with its distinctive exterior of alternating pink and white stone blocks, and the 15th century Basilica of San Bernardino, which reopened in 2015 after six years of restoration work that cost around €40 million.

Piazza Maggiore, pictured here at night, is the beating heart of the city of Bologna
Piazza Maggiore, pictured here at night, is the
beating heart of the city of Bologna
Travel tip:

The history of Bologna, Ondina Valla’s home city, can be traced back to 1,000BC or possibly earlier, with a settlement that was developed into an urban area by the Etruscans, the Celts and the Romans.  The University of Bologna, the oldest in the world, was founded in 1088.  Bologna's city centre, which has undergone substantial restoration since the 1970s, is one of the largest and best preserved historical centres in Italy, characterised by 38km (24 miles) of walkways protected by porticoes.  At the heart of the city is the beautiful Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the Gothic Basilica of San Petronio, which at 132m long, 66m wide and with a facade that touches 51m at its tallest, is the 10th largest church in the world and the largest built in brick.

Also on this day:

1470: The birth of poet and scholar Pietro Bembo

1537: The birth of anatomist and physiologist Hieronymous Fabricius

1943: The birth of singer Al Bano

1967: The birth of film director Gabriele Muccino


No comments:

Post a Comment