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.