The magical story of Italy, which 80 years ago won the first gold in our Olympic sailing

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italy-apeIt was August 1936 when in the German waters of Kiel Italian sailing won its first Olympic gold medal (only two more would come in our history, in Kelsinki 1952 with Agostino Straulino and Sydney 2000 with Alessandra Sensini). But the victory at the Berlin Olympics remains absolutely unique because it was won by an Italian crew with a boat designed and built in Italy. Tracing that great feat of Italian sports is now a special volume “Italia 1936. Remembering Italian Sailing’s First Olympic Medal,” edited by Paolo Rastrelli with the support of Garnell, the Italian company behind the Garnell Sailing Team, which led as many as three athletes to qualification for Rio 2016.

Leo John Reggio
Leo John Reggio

The crew of Italy

All crews participating in the controversial Nazi Olympics had to be composed of amateurs, and in the selection of the Italian lineup, although with a predominance of Genoese athletes, the criterion of including elements from other national sailing centers had already been introduced. Leading the blue team is Leone Giovanni Reggio, a thoroughbred helmsman.

Born in 1888, he has already been one of Italy’s most accomplished sailors for decades. He is given much of the credit for the Kiel victory, but it was he himself who pointed out, “Adagio: the credit was not mine alone. I must recognize-and I do so gladly-that my crewmates made their valuable contribution to that achievement…. The victory we achieved in the name of Italy filled us with pride and gave me the greatest satisfaction to which I could aspire.”

The boat and the long battle with Ilderim

Designing and building the 8-meter S.I. Italia was Attilio Costaguta, who made an “average” boat, excellent walker in medium-light winds and strong enough to defend itself at up to 10 meters per second. It was precisely because of these characteristics that she was chosen to defend the blue colors in Kiel (and to this day she can still be admired sailing in the waters of the Bay of Naples and is moored at the Molosiglio in the nautical base of the Naval League and has been recognized by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage as a “Historical Good”).

schermata-2016-11-30-alle-15-54-44

It was a series of endless regattas, between squalls and sunny days. Italy alternated between moments of exaltation (It remains in the annals of Olympic sailing that stern edge in the first race, when our boat was the only one to hold up the spinnaker, coming almost flying to the buoy and thus managing to get a crucial second place). Italy at the end of the nine races won only one race, the fourth, with a comeback achieved by choosing to pull an endless starboard tack, to the roaring applause of the crowd that packed steamers and motorboats.

But the most exciting moment was a…defeat! In the seventh trial, with a force 3-4 sirocco wind. Sweden, the United States and Argentina start in the lead. Italy fails to rise from the second-last position. It is on the second windward side that Reggio and his crew begin the great comeback. With skillful tacking they overtook one opponent after another until they took the lead of the fleet, even passing Sweden, which was more than a minute ahead of them. It seems done, Italy commands the final part of the regatta until the finish line where a lack of wind gives the victory right to the Scandinavians, direct opponents for the final success.

schermata-2016-11-30-alle-15-53-33The Italian crew returns to shore in a very black mood, which does not improve even when it is announced that they will have to take part in an additional test the following day to determine the winner. In the morning, as they prepare to cast off their moorings, the blues feel discouraged. Awakening them from their slumber is the marina captain, who catches up with them by running and waving his arms, shouting “Italy, Italy!”

In fact, the jury had waited two days to decide about a protest involving the Italian boat as it passed a buoy: after viewing a film shot by the legendary Leni Rifensthal, who had boarded a balloon anchored at the very incriminating buoy, Italy was exonerated. And it was victory!

The most beautiful image of that black-and-white Olympics is given to us by Bruno Bianchi, who was precisely one of the athletes aboard Italia: “What does it feel like? Honestly, I don’t know: I was too busy having tears streaming down my face from my wide-open eyes when the tricolor went up there on the highest pole of all“.

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