Philip Barker

At the Vatican this week, Pope Francis gave his blessing to the Flame bound for the Naples 2019 Universiade.

Next month promises a great homecoming for international student sport. It was 60 years ago that the first authentic, global Universiade was staged in Turin by the International University Sports Federation (FISU). 

It was also an event which launched the international career of Italian administrator Primo Nebiolo. Much later, as International Association of Athletics Federations President, Nebiolo proved a polarising presence. Yet in student sport he remains a revered figure.

"We are very proud of Italy’s part. We have to say thank you to a lot of people but especially to Primo Nebiolo," insisted Andrea Ippolito of the Centro Universitario Sportivo Italiano (CUSI), a FISU ambassador.

Nebiolo was at FISU’s helm for almost four decades until his death in 1999, but Italy’s role in student sport goes back much further.

In 1919, the newly-formed International Confederation of Students called for a "machinery of international collaboration among university people" which "by increased knowledge and understanding of their own generation abroad, fit themselves better to serve the interests of peace".

In the early 1920s there were athletics meetings in Paris and Warsaw. Then, in 1927, Rome held a gathering of "those who are foremost in the affairs of student sport". Visitors also enjoyed a soirée at Termi di Caracalla, a visit to the Vatican and even a concert conducted by Pietro Mascagni.

These were followed by World Student Championships described as "a complete innovation on a Roman scale".

They were organised by the Gruppi Universitari Fascisti and passes and tickets were decorated with the Fascist symbol. The programme included athletics, swimming rowing, tennis and football.

In 1933, Mussolini’s henchman Achille Starace opened an even grander University Games in the new Stadio Mussolini in Turin.

The official report of the first Universiade ©CONI/CUSI
The official report of the first Universiade ©CONI/CUSI

According to Italian newspapers, this was "organised with passion and enthusiasm". The men’s 1,500m pitted 1932 Olympic gold medallist Luigi Beccali of Italy against Jack Lovelock, a New Zealander studying at Oxford University. Beccali prevailed but Lovelock succeeded him as Olympic champion in 1936.

The Games were held every two years until war came in 1939.

When peace returned, CUSI supported the foundation of FISU. Paul Schleimer of Luxembourg was named President. In 1949, Italy hosted an international week of university sport in Merano. This included football, basketball, fencing, tennis and athletics.

Among nine teams taking part were 56 students from Germany, the first time since the Second World War that they had been allowed at an international gathering.

"They are mostly new names but will undoubtedly make their presence felt," was the forecast in the Italian press.

Egypt were the only non-Europeans. Their fencing team was accompanied by Gustavo Marzi, Italy’s 1932 Olympic foil gold medallist.

FISU’s events proved popular but the Soviet Bloc teams took part in events organised by the International Union of Students (UIE).

Finally, there was an agreement to bring all nations together in 1959 under the FISU banner. By March 1958, no decision had been made about the host city, but there was interest from Bologna, Milan, Palermo, Turin and Naples.

Finally Turin was chosen. "The preparation period was in our opinion a little too late for obtaining any great success at all," admitted Nebiolo, who led the Executive Committee from a ‘’well situated’’ villa provided by the city.

Turin had the existing stadium from 1933, now rechristened "Stadio Communale". The programme featured athletics, basketball, fencing, swimming, diving, tennis, volleyball and water polo.

Visiting teams were welcomed at special arrival offices at the airport and railway stations. There had been hopes the student world could solve problems which had thwarted the Olympic Movement.

The official programme listed basketball and volleyball entries from Pyongyang University in North Korea and four athletes from the People's Republic of China. In the end, politics won and it was a long while before either would send full representative teams to the Universiade.

The poster designed for 1970 ©FISU/CUSI/CONI
The poster designed for 1970 ©FISU/CUSI/CONI

Competition opened in the pool before a night time Opening Ceremony featuring students in medieval costume. Instead of a Torch Relay, a ‘’bolla’’ (message) signed by the rector of every Italian university. This contained the oath read by Italian swimmer Paolo Pucci on behalf of his fellow competitors.

The new FISU flag was paraded to the strains of "Gaudeamus Igitur", a famous student anthem. Italian journalist Massimo Della Pergola had suggested the name ‘’Universiade’’ as an echo of Olympiad, used to describe the Olympic cycle.

Late into the evening, a demonstration of costumed Florentine "calcio" set the seal on proceedings.

During the week, basketball and water polo were staged in the evening to "meet spectators' requirements".

On the track, Italy’s future Olympic champion Livio Berruti completed the sprint double.

When not competing, visiting athletes could visit museums and galleries free of charge.

In addition, Circo Togni staged a special performance "for the benefit of all athletes participating in the Universiade", according to owners Oscar and Cesare Togni.

When it was all over, FISU President Schleimer wrote to organisers.

"The remembrance of the Universiade has never left me. The perfection of the organisation, the splendour of the Opening Ceremony, the kindness in welcoming the athletes, the generosity of the Italian public, it made a university sport manifestation with no equal so far."

The future was assured. In 1966 Sestriere hosted the Winter Universiade, but the Summer Games were destined to return to Italy sooner than anyone imagined.

Lisbon was designated 1969 host city but political upheaval made it impossible. Nebiolo was watching Juventus play Benfica in the 1968 European Cup semi-final when an approach was made for Turin to take over. They did but in 1970. 

A ceremonial Flame or "Fire of Freedom" was lit at a statue honouring Pietro Micca, a valiant defender of the city of Turin during a siege in 1706.

Five Italian Universiade champions carried the Flame through the city. Among them, Giusy Leone, who had won gold in women’s 100 metres and 200m at the first Universiade in Turin and another familiar face from 1959.

‘’The Fire of Freedom is what best lights your games. Here in Turin, it is someone from our city that you all know... Livio Berruti,’’ said the announcer.

Just as they had done in 1959, student groups from Turin paraded in the costume of medieval scholars.

At the end of the formal ceremonial, the crowd were entertained by a football match between Cagliari and Sporting Lisbon.

Italian Klaus Dibiasi was a convincing winner in both the springboard and high board. For much of the next decade, he dominated diving.

The CUSI magazine for 1975 in Rome ©CUSI
The CUSI magazine for 1975 in Rome ©CUSI

In the stadium. East German pole vaulter Wolfgang Nordwig set a world record to win gold as a prelude to Olympic success two years later in Munich. 

There was also a world record from West Germany’s Heidi Rosendahl in the long jump. Her victory also foreshadowed Olympic victory. No wonder the official report claimed "the standard of competition was extremely high".

Although the official report claimed "there were very few controversies", Albania refused to play basketball against Israel.

"The team did not want to directly confront the team of a Government which aggressively occupied an Arab nation," said an Albanian statement. It was a portent of further political problems.

After Moscow staged successful games in 1973, Belgrade withdrew from staging the 1975 Universiade at short notice.

That year, Italy had already staged the Winter Universiade in Livigno and Rome held athletics-only Games in the summer. Even so, a team from the People’s Republic of China was invited. 

"We are looking forward with happiness and pride that FISU are favourable to our entering the Games," said representative Wang Yi Chu. 

"There was much excellence on show," said FISU. 

Italy’s Pietro Mennea completed the sprint double as part of a glittering student career. Other future Olympic champions included Italian high jumper Sara Simeoni and Polish steeplechaser Bronislav Malinowski.

The 200 metres and 400m gold medallist Pirjo Haggman of Finland later became one of the first women IOC members.

In 1985, the Winter Universiade was held in the Italian resort of Belluno, before it was decided that the 1997 Universiade would take place across Sicily in Palermo, Catania and Messina.

There were major logistical problems and even discussions on ripping up the entire plan and staging it all in one city.

The Italian press talked of "shadows of the Mafia in Games procurement" but after guarantees from Sicilian Government, world 10 kilometres walking champion Annarita Sidoti, a Universiade gold medallist in 1995, lit the cauldron in front of 45,000 in Palermo.

The programme also included a sprint festival described as "an unprecedented competition among sons and daughters of the wind" which included Frankie Fredericks, Gail Devers and Merlene Ottey.

To the delight of home fans, Italy won football gold with a golden goal against South Korea. "We bet and we won at last", said organising chairman Antonino Strano as the Games came to a close.

Some 22 years on, the Summer Universiade returns to Italian soil, although Tarvisio hosted the Winter Games in 2003 and Turin staged them in 2007.

Naples 2019 has had obstacles to overcome since replacing Brasilia, the original host city. FISU ambassador Ippolito remains confident they will be successful.

"The important thing about these Games will be the passion," he said. "I am sure it will be a great occasion for world sport. People in Naples are very warm, so I imagine that people will be really close to the athletes. You are in the centre of a Mediterranean civilisation.’’