History / Simon Martin

National Heroes, Irrational Identities and a Glorious Defeat

The incredible story of a former seaman, a piano playing human torpedo and a handkerchief wearing runner at London’s 1908 Olympics.

London Olympics 1908: National Heroes, Irrational Identities and a Glorious DefeatAt the London Olympic Games in 1908, Italian sport came of age in what La Gazzetta dello Sport triumphantly declared as a ‘demonstration of a race that has, in itself, the essential elements – moral, intellectual and material – for a superb resurrection, for a wonderful return to ancient times’.

The first Italian to make his mark in London was the wrestler Enrico Porro. A former seaman, at just over 1.5 metres tall he was well short of the minimum army recruitment height and weighed a paltry 62 kilos. Countering generations of malnourishment, he demonstrated great tactical, technical and physical strengths, in the lightweight category, to take gold from a Russian weighing seven kilos more. As La Gazzetta declared:

Porro’s victory makes each of us proud, as it shows that even without possessing gigantic, Herculean, huge-chested men, Italy is first, as in the times of ancient Rome…

In spite of their methodical and diligent preparation, a memory and muscular intelligence is within us, which often makes us superior to northern peoples.

Revelling in Porro’s style as much as the victory, the comment highlighted one of the great pleasures that Italians would take from the successes of their sporting heroes: the skill and occasional craftiness (furbizia) that separated them from their adversaries and often compensated for what may have been physically lacking. As Beniamino Placido questioned in a newspaper polemic with Alberto Asor Rosa, in 1984, just because Italians were not physically built like northern Europeans should they renounce winning? ‘No, if we know how to develop a tactic that builds on our qualities and neutralizes our defects.’ The idea was shared by Romano Guerra, editor of the National Gymnastic Federation’s monthly Il Ginnasta, as early as 1902, who viewed it in terms of Italy’s economic productivity:

Guglielmo Ferrero… puts in clear light this difference in collective production by comparing Latin people with Germans. In the former he recognizes more intelligence, intuition, artistic tendency than in the second, but the work produced together by the Anglo-Saxons is infinitely greater than that of Latins because they are more tenacious, controlled and coordinated.

Another Italian star of the London Games was the gymnast Alberto Braglia, who adapted his background in military-inspired gymnastics to the demands of competitive sport. He had already made his name at the unofficial Intercalated Athens Games, in 1906, where he won Italy’s first gold medal. To the applause and cries of ‘Viva Italia’ the Greek crowd added ‘Viva Garibaldi’ in honour of a legion of red-shirted Garibaldian troops that had fought for Greek independence against Turkey at Domokos, some ten years earlier. Lacking a coordinating body and government financial support, Italy had sent no athletes to the previous modern Games. For the 1906 tournament an Italian Commission for the Olympic Games was formed, much to the chagrin of the Turin Gymnastic Society. Opposed to records and selection, the SGT was also concerned about this obvious threat to its control of Italian sport. After initially refusing to join, its resistance collapsed through fear of alienation, but its former worries were confirmed by the formation of the Italian Olympic Committee (CIO) in 1907. On becoming the Federation of the Federations in 1914, the SGT’s monopoly of Italian sport was over.

Selected by the CIO for the 1908 London Games, Alberto Braglia won the combined individual gymnastics event, or athletic pentathlon. Had there been medals for each of the specialities, he would have swept the board. Like Porro, Braglia was also nationalised by La Gazzetta, which referred to his small stature and connected modern Italy with ancient Rome: ‘His body is shaped in perfect equilibrium… He demonstrates and recreates the harmonious, classic system; that of the Greeks, the most elegant and civilized people, and the Romans, the most powerful in the world.’

Braglia repeated the trick four years later, while leading Italy’s gymnasts to their first ever gold in the team event. The achievement was all the more impressive given the multiple fractures he had suffered when, soon after his 1908 success, he briefly joined the circus as a human torpedo. Launching himself from a chair mounted on a primitive ski-slope-type contraption, Braglia overshot the safety net on his first ‘successful’ attempt. Worse still, having been paid for his act, he was suspended for two years from the Gymnastics Federation, for professionalism.

Undeterred from using his extraordinary talent to escape poverty, Braglia entered the theatre in 1913, playing the piano with one hand while balancing with the other on a pommel-horse. His real money-making idea, however, was bringing to life the cartoon acrobats ‘Fortunello e Cirillino’, from the Corriere della Sera’s children’s supplement, Corriere dei Piccoli. Entering the stage with a briefcase from which his young assistant emerged, Braglia attempted to sweep up the boy who, supported and guided by his maestro, performed a series of acrobatics around the broom handle. Warmly received in Buckingham Palace, the pair commanded huge fees in America for a number of years. On returning to Italy in the mid-1920s, Braglia trained the national Olympic team before attempting to coach a new Cirillo, but was banned by the Fascist regime. Investing his savings into an unsuccessful bar that was destroyed during the war, Braglia was almost destitute by 1948. He finished his working life polishing his trophies in a Modena gymnasium named after him.

Born in Carpi, near Modena, Dorando Pietri’s 1908 Olympic marathon failure was the first sporting press sensation, turning him into an overnight star. Still championed as a plucky loser, in 2008 his home town held a marathon to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of what is one of the great ‘chokes’ in sporting history. Inspired by Italy’s champion marathon runner Pericle Pagliani, in 1903 Pietri began training beneath the porticoes of Carpi, where he was a baker’s apprentice. He was an outsider in the 1908 Olympic marathon, behind the South African favourites and the native-American Canadian, Longboat, who collapsed mid-race after gulping down a bottle of champagne. While the recommendation of alcohol to combat dehydration seems absurd, marathon runners occasionally used strychnine as a performance enhancer, which, legend has it, may have contributed to Pietri’s crisis.

Having led from around the 30 kilometre mark he entered the stadium in first place, turning left rather than right before falling and being helped to his feet. Bent almost double and encouraged by a delirious crowd, he took ten minutes to stagger the last lap before reaching the finishing tape and collapsing. ‘Since the glory of imperial Rome declined and the huge Coliseum fell into ruins, never had a bigger crowd applauded the triumphal arrival of a winning athlete,’ reported the Corriere della Sera. Much to the crowd’s annoyance Pietri’s victory was short-lived, and he was disqualified for the assistance received. To make matters worse, he reportedly entered a coma, with some evening newspapers even announcing his death.

Recovering miraculously, he emerged 24 hours later to enjoy a triumph greater than he might have expected in victory. Flowers, gifts, and an invitation of marriage rained down during a lap of honour, after which he received a trophy from Queen Alexandra. La Gazzetta published its

greatest thanks to the worthiest Pietri who, even if he doesn’t bring first place in the marathon… does win one of the greatest and most illustrious trials: that of brilliantly affirming in front of the admiring eyes of the world, the immortal heritage of Latin strength and virtue.

The drama prompted the Italian press to dedicate significant column inches to a sporting event for the first time. Small, with a handlebar moustache, wearing a baggy vest, red shorts and a knotted handkerchief, Pietri encapsulated Italian poverty while becoming the country’s first, internationally recognized sporting hero. Sharing La Gazzetta’s pride in Pietri’s ‘indomitable courage and ancient Roman energy’, Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle’s claim, in the Daily Mail, that ‘no ancient Roman had known how to accept the laurels of victory better than Pietri’, was gleefully reported. ‘The great race still isn’t extinct. In fact, Dorando is worthy of the ancient victors of the Coliseum.’ So impressed was Conan-Doyle, and perhaps guilt-ridden for his apparent involvement in Pietri’s disqualification, that he opened a fund for the athlete in the same newspaper. One Italian worker gave Pietri his last five shillings, while a French collector offered him 12,500 francs for the Queen’s trophy. His refusal said much about Italy and its sportsmen, according to the Corriere della Sera: ‘This young man, who knows how much effort it takes to earn money, refused what for him is an enormous sum that he couldn’t dream of earning in years of work in Italy.’

Yet, coming at the height of their angst over the merits of sport, Young Socialists criticized Pietri’s ‘victory’ and the attention it commanded. Not only was he working class and the representative of an athletics club with strong links to the left, his activities were fuelling the sport mania. As Giovanni Rinaldi explained in L’Avanguardia, the Federation of Young Socialists’ weekly:

We feel that we have to speak up to defend our youngsters from this now general malaria that degenerates them and tears them away from our organizations and circles…We neither want nor feel like associating ourselves with these shameless events. Our people, our youth has something better to do, which isn’t sport.

We must energetically fight what constitutes, for the bourgeoisie, one of the practical means of attracting our young, thus taking them away from our organizations.

Pietri’s achievement and efforts lasted longer in the memory of Britons, who invited him as a guest of honour to the 1948 Games.While his death had passed almost unnoticed some six years earlier, he remained a plucky ‘champion’ with character and spirit to whom Italians warmed far more than others whose sweat and dedication brought greater returns. ‘Porro, Pietri [and] Braglia’, La Gazzetta proudly proclaimed, ‘have solemnly confirmed to the entire world that the ancient Roman race still isn’t finished, and is marching wonderfully towards a superb resurrection of Italy. Long live Italy!’ ■

The above article is an extract taken from Simon Martin‘s quite brilliant Sport Italia.

Also by Simon Martin:

Roma Bocciata: Italy Scraps 2020 Olympics Bid
Alfonsina Strada: Sexual Confusion in Mussolini’s Italy

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