Showing posts with label 1936 Berlin Olympics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label 1936 Berlin Olympics. Show all posts

9 June 2022

Nedo Nadi - Olympic record-breaker

Five-medal haul at 1920 Antwerp Games included unique treble

Nedo Nadi at the age of 18, when he won his first gold
Nedo Nadi at the age of 18,
when he won his first gold
Nedo Nadi, the Italian fencer regarded as among the greatest of all time, was born on this day in 1894 in Livorno, the port on the Tuscan coast.

Born into a fencing family - his father, Giusepppe, was a renowned fencing master - Nadi won five gold medals at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, which remained the most by any athlete at a single Games until Mark Spitz won seven swimming titles.

Nadi’s own distinction is that he was and still is the only fencer to have won a gold medal with all three weapons, winning the individual championship in both foil and sabre and a team gold in the épée.

His quintuple of medals was completed with team golds in both the sabre and foil.  His younger brother, Aldo, was also part of the winning Italian team in the épée and sabre events.  Their total of seven golds is the most won by members of the same family at a single Games. 

Nedo’s historic achievement might never have happened if his father had had his way. Giuseppe believed the épée to be a “crude and undisciplined" weapon and refused to teach it, limiting the two brothers’ tuition to foil and sabre, to which they were introduced as children. Nedo had his first fencing lesson with a foil at the age of seven in his father’s gymnasium at Livorno. 

Giuseppe’s objected to épée because he felt it was too easy to score points and required less skill. In foil, a fencer could only score off a hit which landed on the trunk of the opponent’s body; in the sabre, only the upper torso and face mask count as scoring hits. But with épée, a hit landed on any part of the body is legitimate.

Nadi's Antwerp medal haul, as  commemorates in a Panini sticker
Nadi's Antwerp medal haul, as 
commemorates in a Panini sticker
But he and Aldo knew their opportunities would be more limited if they confined themselves to foil and sabre and decided to educate themselves in the épée discipline, practising together. It paid off, Nedo winning a solid silver trophy for his three-weapon work during the Jubilee celebration of Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna at the age of just 14.

Nedo entered his first Olympics at the age of 18, winning the gold medal in individual foil at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912.

The First World War meant there was no Olympics in 1916. Nedo joined the Italian Army and was decorated for his bravery.

When the Olympics resumed in Antwerp in 1920, Nedo was chosen as flag bearer of the Italian team and captain of the Italian fencing team. He owed his long list of successes in part to the absence of Hungary, who were traditionally strong in the fencing events but who did not take part, along with Russia and other central European countries who had been on the losing side in the war.

Nedo Nadi's talent was to combine perfect balance, timing and rapid reflexes, qualities which served him well in all the disciplines. He would probably have won the individual épée title in Antwerp had a stomach problem not forced him to withdraw.

Antwerp would be his last Olympics. He made the bold decision to turn professional, taking a job as coach at the Buenos Aires Jockey Club, an exclusive sporting institution in Argentina, although in the event he was reinstated as an amateur on his return to Italy.

Nedo (right) in action against brother Aldo in Cannes in 1935
Nedo (right) in action against
brother Aldo in Cannes in 1935
After retiring from competition in 1932, he was made president of the Italian Fencing Federation in 1935 and was appointed coach of the Italian team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin at the invitation of Benito Mussolini himself.  The team did well, coming home with four golds, three silver and two bronze medals, including a clean sweep in the individual épée competitions.

Sadly, Nedo Nadi died prematurely at the age of 45, suffering a stroke from which he never recovered. He was laid to rest in Portofino, the exclusive resort on the Ligurian coast. 

Five years before Nedo died, his brother Aldo had moved to the United States, where he taught fencing first in New York and later in Los Angeles, occasionally coaching actors for fencing scenes in films. He even appeared in a film himself, portraying a bodyguard in the 1944 movie To Have and Have Not, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.


The History of the Olympic Games: Faster, Higher, Stronger

Livorno's Venezia Nuova quarter is famed for its network of canals
Livorno's Venezia Nuova quarter is famed
for its network of canals
Travel tip:

The port of Livorno, where Nedo Nadi was born, is the second largest city in Tuscany after Florence yet is often overlooked by visitors, many of whom arrive by cruise ship and travel on to Florence, Siena or other destinations. Yet Livorno has plenty to recommend it as a destination in itself. Built during the Renaissance with Medici money as an “ideal town”, it became an important free port, and until the middle of the 19th century was one of the most multicultural cities in Italy thanks to an influx of residents from all round the world who arrived on foreign trading ships. Visitors to Livorno today can sample some of Italy’s best seafood restaurants, enjoy the elegance of the Terrazza Mascagni on the waterfront and the quirky charms of Venezia Nuova, a former commercial district criss-crossed with canals. 

Hotels in Livorno by

The picturesque fishing village of Portofino has been a tourist destination since the late 19th century
The picturesque fishing village of Portofino has been
a tourist destination since the late 19th century
Travel tip:

Portofino is an Italian fishing village and holiday resort famous for its picturesque harbour and historical association with celebrity visitors. Situated about 40km (25 miles) east of Genoa on the section of the Liguria coastline known as the Italian Riviera, it is known for the colourful buildings that line the small harbour.  The village dates back at least until the early part of the first century, when the Roman author and philosopher Pliny the Elder, who was also a naval commander, made reference to Portus Delphini, the Port of the Dolphi. It began to develop as a tourist destination in the late 19th century, when British and other Northern European aristocratic tourists were enticed by its charms, despite access being mainly by horse and cart nearby from Santa Margherita Ligure. As road links improved, some settled and built expensive holiday houses. By the 1950s, tourism had replaced fishing as the town's chief industry. Restaurants and cafés abound on the waterfront.

Stay in Portofino with 

Also on this day:

68: The death of Roman emperor Nero

1311: Duccio di Buoninsegna’s alterpiece The Maestà of Duccio is unveiled at the cathedral of Siena

1762: The birth of architect Luigi Cagnola

1898: The birth of racing driver Luigi Fagioli


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