Philip Barker ©ITG

The sporting year of 2022 seems destined to be defined by events which will bring both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and FIFA under intense scrutiny over their relationships with host nations.

A fortnight ago in his message for the new year, IOC President Thomas Bach insisted: "We can only accomplish our mission to unite the world, if everybody respects that the Olympic Games must be beyond all political disputes."

Pressure groups have since then renewed calls for United Nations secretary general António Guterres to reverse his decision to attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

FIFA's choice of Qatar as World Cup host nation later in the year prompted protests about the rights of migrant workers as soon as it was made.

The words of Bach and FIFA President Gianni Infantino have echoed those of their predecessors.

Critics have compared the IOC stance now with that taken at the Berlin 1936 Olympics held in the shadow of the Nazi swastika. The Games were in fact awarded to Berlin before Adolf Hitler came to power. It was the decision to stick with the city after it became clear that the Nazis persecuted opponents and victimised the Jewish population which prompted calls in the United States and elsewhere for a boycott.

Even earlier, sporting bodies had forged an enduring Faustian pact with fascist Italy. FIFA even saw fit to stage the 1934 World Cup there.

It was 100 years ago this year that Benito Mussolini and his Blackshirts seized power. He proclaimed himself Il Duce, "The Leader".

"I want sport to become a part of the national life of young Italy," he told British journalist Ivan Sharpe.

"Much can be done by physical fitness. Sport in all its forms is one way of achieving that object. Italy shall be a nation of sportsmen."

Like numerous authoritarian leaders since, Benio Mussolini was keen to give off the image of the sportsman ©Getty Images
Like numerous authoritarian leaders since, Benio Mussolini was keen to give off the image of the sportsman ©Getty Images

Photographs in the popular newspaper Gazzetta Dello Sport depicted him on horseback as the "leading sportsman in Italy".

In the interwar years, international sporting organisations clamoured to take "Tea with Mussolini" as Italy regularly hosted events.

The 1923 European Rowing Championships and World Rowing Congress were both held on Lake Como, and in 1927 Cortina d'Ampezzo staged the Nordic World Ski Championships. "Everything is under the control of the Fascist party who are providing funds for the equipment of every kind of sport," reported those who visited Italy.

Although IOC regulations stipulated that "National Olympic Committees, to fulfil their duty, must avoid any political or other influence," Mussolini installed the fanatical Fascist Party secretary Achille Starace as President of the Italian National Olympic Committee (CONI).

Some in Italy branded Starace an idiot.

"An idiot, yes, but an obedient idiot," Mussolini is said to have observed.

The Italian Football Federation was led by another party man, general Giorgio Vaccaro, later an IOC member.

Mussolini himself admitted that grants of money, prizes, assistance in kind and even free railway travel were made available to Italian teams.

In 1923, the IOC had held its Session in Rome. This had been agreed before the Fascist Government came to power. The IOC was received by the Pope and also decided on Los Angeles as host city for the 1932 Olympics.

There was no mention of Mussolini in reports of the meetings but his enthusiasm for international sport soon became apparent. In 1927, Bologna hosted the European Swimming Championships. Organisers were keen to ensure the widest possible international participation, so they offered to pay travel and accommodation costs for competing teams.

Reports from Bologna told of "a splendidly equipped stadium taking shape."

"Duce" can still be seen on the pavement near Rome's Stadio Olimpico ©Philip Barker

At the same time as the swimming championships, Rome hosted the Congress of the International Confederation of Students (CIE). This included an academic gathering and an International Student Sports Championships.

The Italian Fascist University Groups organised the sport and 400 students from 30 countries took part.

"The Games are on a Roman scale," reported the Manchester Guardian. "It has become like a younger Geneva" - a reference to the headquarters of the fledgling League of Nations.

"Add to this high purpose, the impressive Roman ceremony, the pomp of Fascist Italy and the spontaneity of student gatherings and the excitement of international games and you have the complete background for the scene."

The official poster for the event showed a runner in front of the Colosseum and also featured the fasces, the symbol of the regime.

Italian newspapers reported that the arrival of the Italian contingent was greeted with a thunderous ovation. They came in wearing fascist black shirts.

The Frenchman Jean Petitjean, considered the founding father of the student sport movement, expressed "on behalf of the international students, their sincere satisfaction" to the organisers. He also saluted Mussolini.

Italian athletes had performed well since the Olympics resumed after the First World War and at the Amsterdam 1928 Games they won gold in boxing, cycling, fencing.

Rome originally set out a bid to host the Olympics in 1936, but by the time the IOC gathered in 1931 for a Session in Barcelona, Italian members Carlo Montu and Count Alberto Bonacossa "stated that Italy waived their claim for the 1936 Contest at Rome, but at the same time begged to be given the Olympic Games later."

The following year, 112 Italians sailed to the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and returned home with 36 medals.

Gazzetta dello Sport published portraits of the gold medallists on its front page. 

"The 10th Olympiad consolidated and revealed to the world the progress of Italian sport, regenerated by Fascism and the worth of Italian athletes", the paper said.

At the IOC Session held in Los Angeles, Rome had been one of 10 cities listed as prospective hosts for 1940.

Encouragement came later from IOC President Henri de Baillet-Latour who had visited Italy.

Marble statues surround the CONI headquarters ©Philip Barker
Marble statues surround the CONI headquarters ©Philip Barker

"I had the honour of an interview with His Excellency S. Mussolini," Baillet-Latour told his IOC colleagues.

He praised "the care which the Duce takes in providing l'Education Physique in Italy with the most perfect resources. The progress attained in the realm of Sport in Italy is but the just result of a marvellous organisation."

In Rome, on the banks of the Tiber, work had already begun on construction of a sporting complex to be known as the "Foro Mussolini". It was planned that this would form the centrepiece for an Italian Olympic bid and included the CONI headquarters.

A giant obelisk bearing the name of the Italian leader stood at the entrance.

Facilities included the Stadio dei Marmi, surrounded by huge marble statues of sporting figures. The approach was paved with mosaics which depicted Roman centurions and modern fascist soldiers.

In the meantime, Italy gathered further experience in what would now be called mega events.

The new Stadio Mussolini in Turin was opened in time for the 1933 World Student Games, where "20,000 spectators give athletes of all nations thunderous reception," cinema newsreel reports said.

On a sunlit afternoon, students dressed as mediaeval scholars took part in the Opening Ceremony.

As the teams paraded, many raised their arms in the Olympic salute. This resembled the fascist greeting and was enthusiastically received.

As Mussolini’s representative, Starache opened the Games and ended his speech with the words "Saluto al Duce".

The men's 1500 metres proved to be a battle between Olympic champions present and future. Italian 1932 gold medallist Luigi Beccali beat New Zealand's Jack Lovelock, destined to succeed him in Berlin.

Victory in the women’s 100m, 80m hurdles, high jump and 4x100m relay made Ondina Valla the female star. She later became the first Italian woman to win Olympic gold. Even so, the regime's attitude to women's sport remained ambivalent.

A few weeks after the Student Games, the grandees of what is now World Athletics met in Berlin. President Sigfrid Edstrom announced the introduction of a European Athletics Championships in 1934. Italy was chosen as the host nation.

Sporting bodies continue to face tough questions over their relationships with and choices of host nations ©Getty Images
Sporting bodies continue to face tough questions over their relationships with and choices of host nations ©Getty Images

Once again the Stadio Mussolini was the setting. Only men's events were included.

Beccali again won 1500m gold, but this time he was the only Italian victor.

Earlier that summer, the FIFA World Cup was also held in Italy. It was the biggest sporting event yet staged by the regime.

Few countries had been prepared to take on the financial risk of staging the tournament at a time of financial crisis in the world.

The hosting decision was made at the 1932 FIFA Congress in Stockholm where Italy's bid was led by Giovanni Mauro, a FIFA vice-president who had been a referee.

In what was described as a "spontaneous offer", Mauro assured delegates "the Italian Federation is capable of sustaining these burdens."

In other words, the Italian Government promised to bankroll the tournament. It was scheduled for May and June 1934. This was described as "Anno XII" in the calendar instituted by the Fascist government from its first year of 1922.

Mauro became President of the Organising Committee and was assisted by Ottorino Barassi, another prominent FIFA official.

A huge bust of Mussolini dominated the atrium of the Organising Committee headquarters. A wide range of stamps, posters and even promotional cigarette cartons were produced. Many showed footballers giving the fascist salute.

Shop fronts and streets were festooned with decorations promoting the tournament. Vaccaro did admit that "the organisation was fraught with difficulties of all sorts."

Even the hosts were required to qualify. Coached by the highly-regarded Vittorio Pozzo, they beat Greece to secure their place, and according to Italian observers at least, "demonstrated that they had all the resources to aspire to the final."

Matches in the final tournament took place at eight centres across the country. These included the Stadio Partita Nazionale Fascista in Rome which had been built in 1927.

Above the entrance were huge sports sculptures by Amleto Cataldi. On one occasion, Mussolini purchased a ticket as an ordinary spectator. It was simply a publicity stunt, for he subsequently took his place in the tribune of honour.

An obelisk honouring Benito Mussolini remains by the Foro Italico ©Philip Barker
An obelisk honouring Benito Mussolini remains by the Foro Italico ©Philip Barker

"Italy is at the centre of the sports world" trumpeted headlines on the first day.

Ticket prices for the opening round cost only 15 lire yet attendances for matches not involving the host nation proved disappointing.

Instead, many followed the tournament on radio. It was said that Italian commentators were instructed not to mention the lack of spectators.

Italy beat the United States 7-1, defeated Spain after a replay and overcame Austria 1-0 in the semi-finals.

Mussolini was there again for the final to witness Italy’s 2-1 victory over Czechoslovakia after extra time.

"His enthusiasm embodied the way Fascist Italy had lived through this sporting event," wrote Vaccaro in the official report.

The World Cup trophy was handed to Italy's goalkeeper and captain Gianpiero Combi, but it was dwarfed by the gigantic "Coppa Mussolini" which was also presented. Later the players were also presented with gold medals of the order of "Valore Atletico".

"The tournament had a greater significance than simply events on the football field," Mauro said afterwards.

All Roads seemed to lead to Rome as the IOC prepared for the 1936 Olympic host city vote.

"All alterations and new constructions desirable to ensure perfect conditions for the celebration of the Olympic Games would be carried out," Bonacossa assured his fellow IOC members.

There came another twist. Tokyo had also launched a bid for 1940, hoping to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of the founding of the imperial dynasty.

"Rome's preparations were well backed by the earnest leader, Benito Mussolini, who had been enthusiastically soliciting the foreign nations for the privilege," observed the Japanese bid team.

Doctor Yotaro Sugimura and Count Michimasa Soyeshima, IOC members in Japan, travelled to Rome hoping to persuade Mussolini to withdraw Rome’s bid. Thanks to "Mussolini’s generous understanding" Tokyo’s greatest rival withdrew.

Italy focussed instead on 1944.

Italy's football team offer up a fascist salute at the 1934 FIFA World Cup ©Getty Images
Italy's football team offer up a fascist salute at the 1934 FIFA World Cup ©Getty Images

In Berlin, Italy's footballers, again coached by Pozzo, won Olympic gold and then in 1938 they won the FIFA World Cup again.

"The apotheosis of Fascist Sport" was the verdict of Gazzeta.

CONI produced Roma Olimpiaca, an impressive illustrated promotional brochure which promised "Documentary evidence of the equipment for every branch of sport available in Mussolini’s Rome where the Olympic Games could be held."

Plans also included a world exposition but Italy lost the vote to London.

Italy had just signed the Pact of Steel with Hitler and the regime had also begun persecuting Italy’s Jewish population. Symbolically, stone blocks bearing details of the 1935 Italian campaigns in Abyssinia had been installed on the walkway at the Foro Mussolini with other key milestones of the Fascist regime. The connection between sport and politics had become indivisible.

By this time, the American Avery Brundage had become an IOC member. In time, he became President and expounded his own philosophy.

"In an imperfect world, if participation in sport is to be stopped every time politicians violate the laws of humanity, there will be few international competitions," Brundage said.

"Is is not better, to continue our contests and try to extend the sportsmanship of the athletic field into other areas?"

It is a tightrope that the IOC, FIFA and other sports organisations have been walking ever since.