Allow me to supply two premises beforehand: first, I’m Italian, so I know what I’m talking about. Second, Italians were always cheaters. There’s no doubt about that, history serves the lesson well, and many old timers can provide terror tales about Azzurri’s evil doings since the very first international competitions of this sport. Are they like that just in speedskating, or in every sport? Definitely it's a national sin: remember Ferrari’s dirty strategies in F1, or the Zidane/ Materazzi episode during last FIFA WC ’06. If you think about it, you’ll find many examples like that in every possible sport.
Why is that so? Generally speaking, Italians are (possibly along with Spaniards, Innuit, Nepalese and Polinesians) maybe the most likeable people in the whole planet, but when it comes to competitions of any sort, they suffer some kind of Jekyll/Hide transmutation. It does not matter if it is a World Championship or a father&son competition: they’ll do whatever it takes so they can absolutely prevail, even over their own infant children. As if defeat was a STD or something like that for their culture.
What are the reasons for this idiosyncrasy? It must have originated in roman times, perhaps had something to do with the Gladiators: remember, these people invented the very first mass sport events, and consequently the first form of sportsmanship… one that required victory at all costs, if they wanted to keep alive. But hey, this is no social engineering treaty; call this utter need of victory the “Italian drive” and let’s go on about our sport's state of affairs.
When I started racing as a very young boy, I soon found out that I’d better be well away at the front (or the back) of the pack, otherwise my health was going to be at risk. I dreamed about being like Cantarella (the Chad of those days, for you new generations) and my other italic idols. I had my first chance of seeing them in action during 1983 Worlds in Mar del Plata: it was electrifying to watch this huge superhero-muscled guys racing so aggressively while showing their middle finger to the crowd. The only ones opposing some resistance back then was a certain Mr. Tom Petersen from USA (the Mantia of those days) and the Argentineans, playing dirtiest than ever since racing at home. Although I was happy for the Italian victories, I knew there was something wrong about them, because in my childish mind I could guess that those great athletes didn’t need to resort to grabbing, holding and blocking tactics. Nevertheless, I grew up knowing this is a full-contact sport, and that boxing techniques must be employed sometimes in order to stand at the podium.
When I reached the junior ranks, I was proudly announcing to the world that up to that moment I was never disqualified nor sanctioned (probably because I was a sprinter racing mostly time-trials). But then I started doing some marathons and non-nationals road races together with senior athletes: I don’t recall any of those races in which I didn’t end up miserably spread across the asphalt. So I had no choice but to learn and use dirty tricks too, which I would only apply against those bastards that considered me a target as well. Mind: I found out about those tricks from my older colleagues. No coach would EVER teach me anything unmoral or dishonest. Never!
Finally I was a senior myself, and suddenly I felt like I was entitled to bring down whoever attempted to steal my well deserved first place, by whichever means possible. Well, sort of: at least that’s what I was observing at national and European level during that time. Mr. Giorgio Perego, many times European Champion, confirms it: “At that time, we had like a war going on with the French, but before and after the races we were friends. No coach ever told us to do anything bad to the adversaries”. Did things change that much since then? Apart from the friendship outside the track, the most important change is that nowadays there are not only Italians and Frenchmen (plus the odd Belgian or Spaniard) competing for the top places, but many other nations are represented during continental competitions. Even in the judging lines, so no more ludicrous and unrestrained cheating like during those obscure days.
Thing is, when you’re sprinting those agonic final meters fighting for a place in the podium, you don’t actually have time to think, to consider strategies, to conceal and perform dirty tricks. You are more often than not driven by a deep despair, acting instinctively as if your own life was at stake, regardless of medals, titles or even money. Would anybody believe this is only an Italian way of conceiving success in sport? I don’t think so, although only those who raced and found themselves in that situation can really understand it. Now, I wonder: are things so much different in USA, Colombia or Korea? Or Papua, for that matter? How come do I see a lot of Portuguese skaters in top places in every edition of their annual Torneio Terras do Infante? Why it seems to be the same at Gross Gerau? Have you ever been to Trois-Pistes recently? Come on, cheating happens everywhere since we were primates, but I won’t justify it here. Rather, let’s find solutions! Cheating mainly exists because of our human nature, right? That’s why we have rules, but as soon as the rule has been created, a cheat follows immediately. So where is the leak? From my point of view, it’s the judging system that fails entirely. Both CIC and CERS have been hold in Italian hands forever, so our sport’s rulebook and those who were supposed to enforce its complying tend to freely allocate for cheating. I believe we need more politicians from all around the globe poured into the high ranks of our governing bodies, not necessarily ex-racers and/or coaches but definitely NOT biased parents or pet mistresses. There is one too many Italians moving and shaking our sport’s organization, and they certainly possess that terrible “Italian drive” I mentioned before, so we need to get rid of them. After that coup d’ etat is done (if ever), the entire judging system should be deeply modified. With periodic seminars and courses for starters, plus a meritocratic scheme that would bring only the best to the most important competitions, not just the bosses’ darlings. I’ve been asking this for ages: who judges the judges? Once we have reliable and efficient referees, the rulebook should be examined and corrected in order to get cleaner, safer and smarter (spectator-prone) races.
Am I an utopian, you said? Maybe so, but that’s why I don’t entirely agree with the critique being thrown to the cadet and junior Italian teams recently competing at European Champs: to me those critics are only scratching the surface of the real problem. As a result of what happened during that event, many foreigners wrote to me asking if Italian coaches really teach filthy tricks and use headsets to direct their young athletes to block adversaries… It would be stupid from me to deny that there are certain individuals that might be capable of doing that: people with a strong “Italian drive” that were mediocre athletes (or even never raced), are my prime suspects. As of today I have no hard evidence to prove that, only hearsays… though I can assure everyone reading this text that if I ever see something like that happening, I’ll kick the bastard’s arse right on the spot.
Then again, I find it rather hard to believe that skaters can be manipulated through headsets like characters in a videogame. Come on! When you’re fifteen and are racing for that so-important-title, do you actually hear or see something else apart of what’s going on in the pack? Besides, those federal coaches that travel abroad with national teams are generally NOT the athlete’s usual coach, so they can teach very little or can't influence that much a team that stays under their directions for a week or so. What’s more relevant: no skater really pays attention to Mr. Martignon (responsible for the junior team, by now everyone knows him I suppose), and nobody in his right mind would accuse Mr. Ravasi (in charge of cadets team) to recourse to cheating. “I even threatened my skaters to exclude them from the team if I ever see them committing fouls”, Mr. Ravasi affirms, and I can personally guarantee he did so. Are then Italian coaches at home really exasperating their childrens’ drives to win? It used to be that way, and there still are some ill-bred morons operating with that Jurassic mentality, but overall it does not happen anymore. I’m quite sure there are a few bad coaches out there, and as a coach myself I am forced to teach countermeasures to cheating to my skaters due to those rotten apples, but dealing over the years with so many Italian coaches, I never found one that actually encouraged cheating or violence. My theory is that some of the skaters’ parents promote in their offspring these wrongful doings (due to a warped “Italian drive”), but that’s an entirely different subject that may well deserve an article on its own.
All in all, I don’t believe the young Italian teams’ behaviour during this European Junior champs (which was in some cases undeniably not an example of sportsmanship) is imputable to their coaches or relatives, but to the whole system. After all, let’s be honest: at the junior marathon the Italians’ trick was as much bad sportsmanship as the reaction displayed by the Dutch skater as soon as the race finished (see video here >>). Did his coaches teach him to retaliate like that? Hardly! It was a fairly understandable retort, but it was wrong all the same, you must agree. Besides, as one of the Italian boys’ mums makes me realize: how many more scandalous episodes like this one did arise during Heerde Champs? And I ask myself: why don’t’ everybody discuss also the karate and kung-fu going on during girls’ races, at any rate and level, from every citizenship? So please, let’s cut the collective crap and help try to solve the REAL problems. This is and always will be a rough sport, it’s no bloody artistic skating in case you haven’t noticed, and it's not going to change. It's not ice hochey either, but with more and more skilled skaters getting on the field, the chances to see formal etiquette displayed at races are slighter by the minute.
In my not so humble opinion, all this kind of violent nonsense happens in our sport because, aside political intromissions and bad judging, after all this years there is still no equal conditions competition, from locally organized small races to Worlds level. I’ve seen its effects in such dissimilar environments as South America and Europe: twenty years ago, Italy dominated the field not only by deploying the best and more numerous athletes, but by placing the most prominent judges in the right spots, and using equipment available only to themselves. Argentina was doing exactly the same at that time, and as a result other countries in their respective regions could not fully develop. Then in-lines made their appearance, and things changed for good to some degree (mostly, for pairing things a bit and bringing new countries into the gotha of the sport). But old habits are difficult to eradicate, and more or less we are witnessing the same old crap happening these days at all layers of the sport. I’ve seen Colombians doing the team block charade at ODESUR Games in Mar del Plata last November (quickly being dismissed by Argentinean politicians simply by out ruling the judges decisions!), or even more blatantly during Anyang’s ‘06 track 1k, against a dazed and surely pissed off Mantia (see video here >>).
In Europe the situation is perhaps a little bit better than in the other continents, but improvements since the nineties are minimal. Take for instance the pictured sequence of the infamous junior marathon mentioned above: we can see in the final meters of the race two Belgians, one Dutch and FOUR Italians, being the rest of the field well behind them (see photo sequence here >>)... Please note that 63 medals (29 golds) cannot be won just by cheating all the time. This almost total domination is by all means not good for the sport, and to some extent it’s the Italians’ fault… Mind, their politics’ fault! Not their skaters or coaches, many of whom have been for years actively involved in helping the advancement of other countries’ skating.
It seems that when an independent strong force comes along to challenge the hegemonic power at large, the sport grows, as it was the case of France decades ago and Colombia and Korea recently. Therefore, instead of complaining about Italy’s abusive supremacy, while trying to refurbish the political and judging departments of our sport, we’d better assist the up-and-coming nations to work out a development plan that would allow them to have as much elite racers as the Italians have. Colombians understood this long ago (as they learned a lot from their tutors’ mistakes) and today you can find more and more nearby countries in Central&South America entering decent racers at world level…. As opposed as the stupid Argentineans, once a superpower that unfortunately followed the same Italian path, but without a rational domestic development plan. What’s worse: Mar del Plata's clubs and Federation acted the old “Italian way” in their own home soil. That is, to cheat their way towards victory while opposing any possible growth to the rest of the country. As a result, today they find themselves winners of every possible local championship and being selected for the national team… because there’s nobody else.
Now, with your heart on your hand, tell me honestly: isn’t this all too familiar? Does it not happen also in you own country, whatever it might be? Don’t you have obsessive parents, ignorant coaches and corrupt judges over there as well? I presume that if you’ve read up to this point, you must already know what is wrong with Italians: they have pros & cons like everybody else, but are more noticeable because they are one of the leading countries in this sport. I find it hard to believe that all the other countries’ officials are worth one’s salt, and definitely there are no saints around this or any other sport. But we all can contribute with our two cents as parents and coaches, starting by instilling into our younger generations the notion that a clean win is the only win that counts… and that no win is as much as good, as long as they have fun while racing with people that must be considered their FRIENDS. They’ll have enough time to change idea if they ever get into a professional circuit with loads of money involved, will they not?
Marcello Bresin - ©SpeedkSk8rs.com