Philip Barker

The flame for the 2019 Winter Universiade is destined for the host city of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia after being kindled on the Northern Italian city of Turin earlier this week. 

It is almost 60 years ago that the first University Games in their current format took place in Turin and the flame is always lit there to acknowledge their history and the part played in them by an ambitious young Italian official called Primo Nebiolo. In 1959, he worked on the Organising Committee as President of the Italian University Sports Federation. 

Within two years he was President of the Federation Internationale de Sport Universitaire (FISU). Much later he became the boss of world athletics.

Known in some parts of the world as "World Student Games" or "World University Games", the Italian organisers coined a term for the gathering that endures to this day. They called it the "Universiade".

There had been international Games for students since the 1923 when French official Jean Petijean organised an event in Paris. These continued throughout the 1930s but after the war, the Union Internationale dÉtudiants (UIE), founded in Prague, established Games which were held in Eastern Bloc capitals during the early 1950.

Rival University sports weeks were held in the West under the aegis of FISU beginning with 1949 in the Italian town of Merano. In the late 1950s agreement was finally reached and the student bodies of East and West were reunited after what had been described as an "’inefficient cold war". A successful pilot event was held in Paris and then finally the first official Games in Turin.

"This manifestation will realise a step forward towards the definite unity and cooperation in university sport…carried out by World University sports which are not affected by the evils of separatism.Let us mark our approval to the universities of all countries," FISU said at the time. 

The organisers of the newly united Games were determined to give their event a unique identity.

An Olympic-style torch would eventually be introduced, but 1959 the was described as a  "bull".This was a term used for the messages which contained proclamations from the Pope in the middle ages.

The journey began at the University of Sassari on Sardinia, founded in 1562. The rector of the institution appended his signature to the "Universiade Bull" before sending the relay runners on their way.

This took the form of a parchment on which was written the oath to be sworn by all competitors.

Primo Nebiolo, later President of the IAAF and a member of the International Olympic Committee, was a driving force behind the first Universiade at Turin in 1959 ©Wikipedia
Primo Nebiolo, later President of the IAAF and a member of the International Olympic Committee, was a driving force behind the first Universiade at Turin in 1959 ©Wikipedia

Runners took the message to Cagliari and from there to Sicily where the relay visited the universities of Palermo, Catania and Messina. At each stop it was greeted by the academic authorities.  From there it crossed to the mainland.

By the time it arrived in Turin towards at end of August 1959, the message had been signed by the rector of every Italian University.

The Opening ceremony was held by night at the Stadio Communale - since renamed the Olympic Stadium. The opening declaration was were opened by Italian Sports Minister Umberto Tupini.

A special flag emblazoned with the letter "U" for Universiade on a white background was borne into the Stadium by an escort of athletes dressed as scholars from the middle ages.

"This seemed to show that the Universiade and the Olympics were closely linked," wrote Nicolo Samarelli in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The words of the oath were read from a what was a huge scroll by swimmer Paolo Pucci, who had already won the 100 metres freestyle bronze medal earlier in the day before the official opening of the Games..

"We swear that we shall take part with loyalty and generosity in the Universiade sports, respecting the rules which govern them for the glory of University sport and the honour of our teams," he said.

A new flag was trooped in by students and as it was raised the music played was Gaudeamus Igitur, a traditional student song. This has since become the official anthem for FISU.

Petijean, the Frenchman who had started the ball rolling all those years before was present in Turin to watch the events unfold and in future years an award given by FISU would bear his name.

The original manuscripts of another Frenchman, Pierre de Coubertin were on display in the city. They were on loan from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which signaled its own approval of the Universiade with an exhibition of objects from the Olympic Museum.

In an unsigned article, most probably written by the IOC Chancellor Otto Mayer, the Olympic Review described the Games as "a fine illustration of university sport based on dignity and high ideals".

There was a glimpse of champions future and in 1959, sprinter Livio Berutti delighted the home crowd in the men’s 200m just as he would on the Olympic track in Rome a year later. 

Romania’s Iolanda Balas also took gold in the women’s high jump as a prelude to her Olympic success in 1960. 

The Torch for Krasnoyarsk 2019 was lit at a special ceremony in Turin on Thursday ©FISU
The Torch for Krasnoyarsk 2019 was lit at a special ceremony in Turin on Thursday ©FISU

The Games were in part a dress rehearsal off the field too. The Rome Organising Committee sent some students from the University of Rome to take part. They were to be stadium announcers at both these Games and at the Olympics.

It was in Rome’s Olympic year of 1960 that a first Winter Universiade was held in the French town of Chamonix. It was not the first Winter sports event for students but by a happy coincidence, it was held in the very resort which staged the first Olympic Winter Games all those years ago in 1924.

The Games were opened by Maurice Herzog, a renowned mountaineer, who had reached the summit of Annapura in 1950, and was now Commissioner for Youth and Sport in the French Government.

The first Winter Universiade champion was French slalom skier Cecile Prince, who had also taken the oath on behalf of all the competitors at the Opening Ceremony held at the skating rink.

Figure skater Alain Calmet lit the flame and won a gold medal later in the week. Calmet had been one of those to hurry over from Squaw Valley where the 1960 Winter Olympics had just finished.

Throughout the 1960s, they took place in even years which meant the possibility of a clash with Winter Olympics every four years. They moved briefly to odd years in the early 1970s and are now always held in the same year as the Summer Universiade.

The Flame set for Krasnoyarsk, lit a a special ceremony on Thursday (September 22), is due pass through 30 cities and be carried by 650 bearers across Russia before it arrives at the opening ceremony on March 2 next year.