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Olympic spotlight shines differently around the world

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LONDON — The lithe figures of Italy’s own Dream Team swaggered out from their locker rooms to a mob bellowing “Italia! Italia! Italia!” Supporters of the opposing French looked over their shoulders with narrowed eyes as taunts rained down from rowdy fans war-painted in green, white and red. Back home, from the Piazza San Marco to the beaches of Bari, millions of Italians held their breath for one of their own Olympic moments.

En garde! The Italian fencers have come for the gold (and silver, and bronze).

The gods and goddesses of the pool and gymnasium may be gripping American TV viewers. But in Italy, a country where fencers are underwear models and reality show stars, and where even children parry and coupe in after-school clubs, Olympic fencing is scoring ratings higher than soccer, diving, basketball or gymnastics.

Valentina Vezzeli — the 38-year-old nicknamed the Cobra and whose victory at Athens in 2004 caused Italian broadcasters to break into evening newscasts — scored her sixth gold medal through a team victory in the foil competition last week. That came only two days after she took bronze in the individuals, bested only by her younger Italian teammates who hogged gold and silver. The Italian men, even with celebrity fencer and national sex symbol Aldo Montano injured and off his game, still managed to take home gold and bronze team medals, as well as an individual silver for 31-year old Diego Occhiuzzi.

Corralled by NBC and ruled by national tastes, Americans are experiencing an Olympics much different than the Games as seen by a vast global audience. Hungarians are going gaga for water polo. Mexicans can’t get enough Tae Kwon Do. The French are obsessing over judo. Millions of Turks were clamoring for the start of wrestling. Seemingly all of Germany is agog at Equestrian. And the Spaniards, their soccer team shockingly eliminated from the medal rounds already, have now trained their national sights on another sport likely to lead to more national heartache: men’s basketball.

There are always Olympic moments that unite: the world seemed to delight in the joyous victory of 16-year-old U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas in the women’s all-around. But for a world divided by athletic strengths and national passions, these still remain many Olympics in one, with each country’s sporting obsession offering a unique window into their national souls.

“You don’t have to be posh to fence, but you cannot deny there is a certain sophistication about it,” said Michele Marzano, 26, a financial regulator from just south of Rome who traveled to East London to cheer on the victorious Italian queens of fencing. “Italians are nothing if not aesthetes, we like anything that is beautiful, elegant and classy. Of course, this also applies to sports.”

‘The only thing we’re good at’

London 2012 is calling, and Copenhagen is answering. Seemingly with one voice, all of Denmark is crying out for one sport and one sport alone: handball.

If Brazilians bleed soccer, then the Danes bleed handball. Almost a mating of soccer and basketball, or water polo without the water, this contact sport so feverishly grips Denmark that 3.1 million viewers tuned into see the Danish national team play France in the finals of the 2011 World Championship. There are only 5.4 million people in the country.

Top Danish handball pros are earning a cool $650,000 a year. Children play pickup games on the streets and schoolyards of Copenhagen. Mikkel Hansen, voted the world’s best player by the International Handball Federation, stars as the face (and hair) of Head & Shoulders shampoo in his native Denmark. “It’s down to history, we invented the sport,” said Dan Philipsen, who covers the coveted handball beat for Jyllands-Posten, one of Denmark’s largest newspapers. “And it’s the only thing we’re good at.”

Danish women brought home handball gold from Atlanta, Sydney and Athens; their men are now the defending European Champions. During a tough women’s match against Spain last week, a Viking-hatted Danish dentist cheering herself hoarse perhaps said it best.

“Let’s face it, we’re never going to win the World Cup” soccer tournament, said Tina Panum, 36. “So for us, they are our sports celebrities. We know their names. They are recognized on the streets. We live for this sport!”

Rowers impress the host nation

In host country Britain, a surprise bronze in men’s team gymnastics and heartthrob diver Tom Daley have indeed kept many a local eye on the gym and the pool. But British attention also seems to focused on the roads, velodromes and waterways, where cycling and rowing are racking up huge television ratings (and gold medals) for Team GB.

Chris Hoy, who led his team to gold in sprint cycling last week, is already gracing boxes of Kellogg’s Bran Flakes, U.K. edition. The insane cycling fever gripping Britain, spread also by last month’s historic win at the Tour de France by Bradley Wiggins, has already sent bicycle sales soaring nationwide, with tens of thousands of new enthusiasts reportedly signing up to cycling clubs in recent weeks.

Two miles west of Windsor Castle, near the hallowed halls of the Eton College that regularly churn out British prime ministers, dandies and adventurers, a still-water lake is now commanding the attention of a nation. Though rowing has long been seen as a quintessentially British sport, it is also occasionally dismissed here as the posh pastime of the elite. But even the general public in class-obsessed Britain now appears to be going wild for a sport in which the home team, as it is so wont to do in rowing, is bringing in some major Olympic coinage.

Since the 2012 Games began, Britain has scored a pack-leading nine medals in rowing, including Britain’s first golds of the Games by the women’s rowing team of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning. Amid mobs of fans donning Union Jacks — and some bowing to the image of the sport by wearing tuxedos jackets with shorts and sandals — the team of Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins struck more British rowing gold on Friday.

“Astonishing,” Zac Purchase, one half of Britain’s lightweight men’s double sculls rowing team, said of the team’s domestic backing. “To get that kind of support? We’ve never been anywhere and been clapped during our warmup. That’s just a completely new experience for us and one we’re really, really enjoying. The buzz and the cheering, it just makes you proud to be British.”

Karla Adam, Barry Svrluga and Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.

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