When sport makes history

One of the peculiar characteristics of sport is that it has always been one of those social activities capable of generating the highest aggregation rate, thanks to the sympathy and empathy athletes are able to produce. Very few can run a marathon, but we can all imagine how much effort is needed to achieve it. This is why, since the first Olympic games in ancient Greece, the practice of sport has been transformed into an activity of great interest for those who want to have an impact on collective opinion. Romans used to say panem et circenses, and not by chance: that was the recipe for maintaining power. A reciprocal influence between sport and politics that led the main superpowers, during the twentieth century (the century of communication), to turn the most important sports events into confrontation grounds not just for athletes, but for real ideologies.
Just think of the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games by the United States following the Russian invasion of Afghanistan a few days earlier. Or the impact generated, on the occasion of the last Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, by the presence of the two Koreas under a single flag (representing the entire Korean peninsula), during the opening parade of the Games - something that had not occurred since 2006. At the Olympic Stadium in PyeongChang, South Korean President Moon Jae-in turned from his seat in the gallery and held out his hand to Kim Yo-Jong, Kim Jong-un's younger sister, who is still technically at war with the South. She, the first member of the Kim dynasty to set foot in the South for seventy years, smiled and agreed to shake Moon's hand, in a gesture of relaxation that has already quickly gone down in history.

Sport, history and culture

Therefore, sport makes history, and to remember how much some events related to it are able to impact on our contemporary culture, it is possible to go back to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Hitler (being advised by Goebbels) strongly wished these games to become a demonstration of Aryan superiority. To achieve this, he was also helped by the immense filming work of Leni Riefenstahl, the filmmaker of the Reich (assisted by more than 40 operators for over 4 hours of final film, Olympia, whose editing took precisely more than 2 years).
The most exciting ones were not the 89 medals, 33 of which gold, won by Nazi Germany, but the 4 gold medals won by the African-American athlete Jesse Owens. Respectively, he won in the 100, 200 meters and long jump, plus a relay 4x100 meters to which he was not even registered, but which he was forced to participate in place of two Jewish runners obviously excluded; all this in front of an audience full of exponents of the pure race. A moment reinterpreted by the contemporary collective memory, unaware that the treatment suffered by Owens in Germany proved to be better than what he would have received at home, where racial segregation laws were in force; these would have forced him for a long time to use rear entrances and service elevators whenever he was invited to a demonstration.

In Germany, the Führer simply did not shake his hand, as he did with any athlete other than a German, leaving the stadium before the award ceremony and sending him a signed portrait a few days later. In turn, President Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman simply ignored the award-winning athlete altogether. It was necessary to wait for Ford and 1976 for his exploits to receive some deserved consideration, with the highest civil recognition in the United States, the Medal for Freedom, and becoming part of the common imagination as one of the moments that most marked the history of Western culture.

A very special edition - and it could not have been otherwise - that of 1936, which saw the addition to the episodes related to Owen also the events of the Korean marathon runner Sohn Kee-Chung. Forced to compete with the Japanese uniform and under the Japanese name Son Kitei (since Korea had been invaded by Japan in 1910), he was immortalized by Riefenstahl while on the podium, after winning the marathon, hearing the Japanese anthem intone and seeing the Japanese flag hoist, outraged and with tears in his eyes, he lowered his head and covered the small Japanese flag sewn on his shirt.

Despite the fact that in the interviews immediately following he did not miss an opportunity to present himself with his real name and as a Korean athlete (with all that this gesture will entail), it was necessary to wait until the summer of 1988 for his final redemption. Almost eighty years old, the athlete entered running into the crowded Seoul stadium, holding the torch of the opening ceremony and wearing a white tank top on which stood out the symbol of South Korea. "Now I can die without regret," he would say that day, as soon as he returned home.

Gino Bartali "saves" the Italian Republic

Even in Italy, sport has been able to mark some decisive moments in contemporary history. For example, people used to say that Gino Bartali saved Italy from the civil war in 1948. Even if this was not entirely correct, it is possible, of course, to say that his achievements contributed in a decisive manner to save the newborn Republic. A few months after the first general elections in Italy’s history, which had seen the overwhelming victory of the Christian Democrats (DC) with 48.5% of votes and the appointment of Alcide De Gasperi as Head of Government, tensions were still very high, between threats of excommunication and riots in the streets. When, on July 14 1948, while the Tour de France was taking place in the other side of the Alps, a young Sicilian of the extreme right attempted to the life of Minister Togliatti in the middle of Piazza Montecitorio, the situation seems to become uncontrollable. Strikes and revolts broke out in many industrial areas, radio communications were interrupted, and Workers’ Unions proclaimed the general strike. All of this happened while the Minister of Internal Affairs Mario Scelba ordered merciless repression against the unauthorized demonstrations.

Despite representatives of the Italian Communist Party and Togliatti himself, who survived the attack, invited to calm down, most of the Italian journalists and photographers were returning home from the stands of the French cycling competition, mostly because our runners did not seem to have many hopes for victory. Many wrote that Gino Bartali, who won that same Tour a decade earlier, with his 34 years was by decidedly "too old" to win it again. De Gasperi himself called Gino Bartali the same evening of the attack, asking him for the courtesy to win "because here there is a great confusion".

The Tuscan cyclist, already busy on overturning the total distrust of the insiders, the next day left everyone breathless with a series of unexpected shots that entered the legend of cycling, as on the climb of Col d'Izoardè, a path of 16 km to 6.9% that climbs to 2361 meters, in the frost of those altitudes. If on July 13, practically in the middle of the race, Bartali had been 21' behind the favourite Bobet, after that day his disadvantage fell to less than a minute.

Meanwhile, the whole of Italy glued to the radio to follow with growing emotion this epic feat of “Ginettaccio”, and seemed to have put aside the political factiousness. The pride for the unexpected catch-up and the triumphs of the captain of his team, which actually that year would have gone to the podium for the second (and last) time, really helped to ease the tension, to recreate a sense of union, to quell the souls and the fierce clashes in the square.

Sport against racism

However, the episodes linked to the racial tensions have most marked our common imagination. More than for his silver medal in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (in a time of 20.06, which is still today an unsurpassed Australian record), Peter Norman is, for example, still remembered as the "white hero of Black Power". During the award ceremony of that race, on October 16, the two black sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos, with whom Norman shared the podium, listened to the American national anthem at the head of their chinks and barefoot, lifting a fist locked inside a black glove, in an attempt to raise public awareness on the issue of the civil rights of African Americans. Norman, who was also responsible for the idea that the two athletes shared the only pair of gloves available (Carlos had forgotten his), decided without any hesitation to express his solidarity with the cause and asked to wear the coat of arms of the Olympic Project for Human Rights movement on the podium.
Peter Norman was born and raised in a progressive Australian family that was part of the Salvation Army, in a suburb not too different from those reserved for blacks in the United States. He had to fall back on athletics, as he was not able to afford football equipment (becoming among other things the best Australian sprinter of all time). On his return home, he was violently condemned by the Australian media for his gesture, boycotted and even threatened with death: he was excluded from the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, despite having classified, and was not even invited to attend the Sydney Olympics in 2000. It was necessary to wait until 2012 for a late statement of apologies from the Australian Parliament, a gesture that built on the decision of the U.S. Federation of Athletics to appoint October 9, the date of his funeral, the Peter Norman Day. On that sad day in 2006, to support the coffin of their friend, there were precisely Smith and Carlos.

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