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Speedskater Goes From Anonymity To Celebrity in Italy

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 25, 2006

TURIN, Italy, Feb. 24 -- Enrico Fabris was slipped phone numbers by many attractive women this week. Many numbers. "I don't have a girlfriend, so I must choose wisely," the boyishly good-looking Italian double gold medalist said.

He acknowledged that none of these signoras knew him before last week.

President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi telephoned to congratulate him, though it is possible neither knew his name before calling. Press attaches do not remember Italian presidents and prime ministers ever calling a speedskater.

Friday, Fabris (pronounced Fah-BREEZE) is Roberto Baggio on ice. Competing in a sport his nation cares nothing about, Fabris is experiencing the celebrity of a soccer icon.

He is getting so big, Italian journalists bemoan Fabris sharing his time with foreign media. "Does he forget us now that he is popular?" a man from Italy's largest newspaper, Gazzetta dello Sport, said in Italian.

Enrico Fabris either feigned not hearing him or he wanted the man and his compatriots to wait -- the way they made him wait.

"I used to call Gazzetta dello Sport from Hamar, Norway," Fabris said Friday after his last competition of the Turin Olympics, the 10,000 meters, in which he finished eighth.

As Fabris told it, a clerk would pick up the phone and say "Sports," and the greatest long-track skater in Italy's inglorious speedskating history would respond like any kid calling in a softball score to the local paper.

Except he wasn't calling from across town.

He was calling from the European championships.

"Hello, this is Enrico Fabris. I am European champion. Can you put this in the paper?"

"No one know anything about me before Olympics," Fabris said. "Now I will enjoy my moment and take it all through my life with me."

This is a story about a young athlete who two weeks ago was pulling in 1,208 Euros a month, a paltry wage provided by the Italian government that forced Fabris to live at home with his parents and two brothers in the small northeastern town of Roana. But then Fabris came to Turin. He came to Turin like Maximus came to Rome.

His life changed the moment he led the Italian team to a surprising gold medal in the team pursuit. Fabris left two bickering Americans, Shani Davis and Chad Hedrick, behind in the 1,500 meters on Tuesday, and won his second gold medal. He won bronze in the 5,000 meters. Now it's all Fabris, all the time.

At the medals ceremony this week, the crowd serenaded Fabris, paying more attention to their new gold medalist than the musical act that evening, Ricky Martin. "It was very loud," Fabris said. "I was almost embarrassed."

Now, Fabris is dueling Italian skiing star Giorgio Rocca for the most famous face of the Games' host country. If Rocca does not medal in the slalom Saturday, Fabris's popularity is sure to spike some more.

"Maybe the love the people demonstrated to me in the last days is because I understand them," Fabris said. "In some way they love me now because they say I'm a simple person, which is important for me. I still can't believe it. The front of the national paper, parties for me and my medals. It is amazing for speedskating that boys are talking about taking this up in my country."

There are few ice rinks in Italy. Roughly 300 Italians are signed up with speedskating clubs. In the Netherlands, the sport's hotbed, 170,000 reportedly belong to speedskating organizations. "The reason why Fabris is such big surprise is because, in our country, speedskating is nothing," said Pietro Dalmasso, the deputy press manager at the Lingotto Oval, where the speedskating events are held.

If Fabris's tale also is about a kid who took up one of Italy's least-popular sports at 6 years old -- and how he grew up to bring his country its first speedskating medals -- it also is about how he became perhaps its most eligible and available 24-year-old. "I don't know, everybody just start paying attention to me," he said.

Girls have accosted him, slipping him numbers, making it clear they are available. "To stay famous in Italy, you must begin dating a famous girlfriend, you know this, right?" Fabris is told by a foreigner familiar with Italian culture. He nods his head, smiling.

Someone mentioned Monica Bellucci, the Italian film star. A sheepish Fabris played along. "I am waiting for her," he said. "No, no. I will keep my feet on the ground."

His hardware will bring him more than 300,000 Euros from the Italian government, which, Fabris said, means he can stop sponging off his parents. "I plan to buy a house in the spring," he said.

How long will Fabris's fame last? "Eh, maybe six months," Dalmasso predicted. "And then the next time? For the next Olympics.

"It is like soccer in your country. You care about it for World Cup and then you go back to baseball."

But no more will Enrico Fabris have to telephone the biggest paper in his country to tell them he is a European champion. No more will he have to get by on a pittance and live at home, be lacking for female companionship or wonder when his time will come.

After the handsome young Italian signed an autograph for a new fan on Friday evening, the man shook his head.

" Prima che sia nessuno ," the man said, talking about Fabris. " Ora sono qualcuno ."

"Before I am no one. Now I am somebody."

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