As an Italian, I'm quite jealous of Team GB and Britain's sport system. It's not just about your Olympic and Paralympic medals, it's about the respect and the esteem that Britain harbours for their athletes.
Preamble: I love telling lovely stories: hopeful, successful and victorious stories. Unfortunately, today I have to tell two sad, parallel stories. They reflect Italian society which is sitting on the precipice of an economic crisis that has had a disastrous effect on sport.
These are the stories of two girls, two women at the height of their physical and psychological development. Their names are Alessia and Marzia. The former is a swimmer, the latter a runner. Alessia is 25 and is a Beijing silver medallist and Rome '09 world champion. In her list of awards there are also 3 European championships, 44 Italian championships, one world record, 3 European records and 11 Italian national records. Marzia is the Italian national record holder of 100m hurdles. She is turning 31, is a London 2012 semi finalist and is actually among the 6 European fastest hurdlers.
What have these two girls in common? They share an incredible talent, a passion for sport and their relevant international performances. And both of them have come up against some problems about their professional management as athletes. In a nutshell, in Italy they can't find the right logistic and economic means to be pro athletes.
Last 12th October Alessia announced her retirement from competitions. The reasons are mainly two: first, a serious shoulder injury which plagued her during 2010. Second, she was fired by her former team, "Fiamme Gialle", and after the injury, finding a team that wanted to take her became a nightmare. So, at age 25, Italy loses an athlete that probably would have still given her 2 cents worth to Italian swimming, which is actually in the middle of a deep identity crisis.
Marzia's situation, in my opinion, is more grotesque and worrying. She had to quit her job (she's a sign language interpreter) to get ready for the Olympics, assuming all the expenses herself. Only one sponsor supports her. Marzia is one of the few athletes in Italy in athletics and the so-called "sports with less media exposure" who doesn't belong to military teams, held by the central government (i.e. Polizia, Carabinieri, Corpo Forestale dello Stato, Guardia di Finanza, Aeronautica Militare, Polizia Penitenziaria, et cetera), but belongs to a 'civilian' team. It means that no one assures her of a fixed income which allows her to pay her entourage - a nutritionist, a masseur and of course a coach: as if a surgeon could operate with no nurses, anaesthetists or healthcare professionals. In this context, according to Marzia's statements to the Italian press, the Italian Athletics Federation (Fidal) keeps quiet and naturally doesn't spend a Euro.
In a few words, the facts are as follows: one of the current beliefs of the limping Italian athletics system is that the 100h national record-breaker should be a part-time athlete, and still be able to train herself in the best conditions to keep herself competitive. Marzia is seeking another sponsor, and her Facebook fans' attempts to take up a collection to create a fund for her don't count. "Charity is for unlucky, needy people", Marzia said. "I'm looking for a sponsor who wants to share a serious project with me and invest in sport".
Alessia and Marzia's stories put me in a blue mood. We live in a society which jumps on the bandwagon very quickly to celebrate success without considering all the work behind a medal. Much more is involved than simply running or mastering a swimming stroke. Athletes need professionalism in their lives. If it's true that being an athlete means to have a "privileged" job, it's also true that it is actually a real job. And it must be a real job in Italy, since Italians love it when their fellow compatriots reach the top with record-breaking achievements.
When I read these stories I think about how inadequate Italy is compared to Britain. In Italy sports are not well integrated in schools, and they constantly suffer cutbacks of State subsidies (20% in 2011). Nowadays, with the exception of football, sports bring a weak contribution to the formation of Italian identity. There are extra thousands of Euros in bonuses for Olympic medallists and World Champions, but on the other hand, Federations (and therefore the central government) poorly support athletes, while sponsors, due to the economic recession, generally only aim for the top most popular athletes.
If I were in Alessia or Marzia's shoes, I would apply for British citizenship. If I were a company or had some money to invest in something, I would definitely invest in their careers without a second thought.
Photo credit by Marzia Caravelli's Facebook fanpage