77. Physical Culture

I don’t know anything about sports. Or probability. But waiting at gate B5 at Boston’s Logan Airport yesterday, staring at the wall honoring New England sports legends, there seemed to be an over-supply of Italian names. I counted six among the twenty or so names, more than I imagine the representation of Italians in the general population of New England.There was Mike Eruzione, the captain of the Olympic hockey team that stunned the Russians in the 1980 games. There was Brockton boxer Rocky Marciano. Women were represented in the UConn basketball team (with its coach Geno Auriemma and star player Diane Taurasi) and hockey player Angela Ruggiero. A personal favorite from my childhood was Red Sox Tony Conigliaro (mispronounced, to my father’s distress, American-style as Con-ig-lee-air-oh), a young local hero, whose career was cut short after he was hit in the cheek by a fastball at age 22. And this doesn’t include national figures like Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Rocky Graziano,  Dan Marino, and Joe Montana and coaches, both esteemed and disgraced like Vince Lombardi, Joe Paterno, Rollie Massimino, Rick Pitino, John Calipari, Jim Valvano, and Joe Torre.

Why would this be? I can’t imagine that Italians are physiologically more gifted than others, to have risen to a disproportionate level of athletic greatness. And this doesn’t even include soccer, their most important national sport.

My father used his Italian soccer skills to coach the team at Bradford Durfee College of Technology in Fall River, Mass.

I had the good fortune this past semester to audit Prof. Patricia Riley’s course “Michelangelo to Mussolini: The Classical Tradition of Rome” at Swarthmore College. We looked at the elevation of physical strength and grace of the classical sculptures of ancient Rome, and the physicality of the fight-to-the-death “games” that took place in the Coliseum and the Circus Maximus.

In Rome, fierce and not-so-fierce re-enactors of the ancient games.

We read Borden Painter’s Mussolini’s Rome about the centrality of cultivating athleticism among youth in the Fascist state. Do these historic roots lead inevitably to an emphasis on athletic achievement in modern life, even across the Atlantic? Or is it a similar story as other struggling groups considered more brawn than brains in America: that athletics were a place to shine when intellectual and other paths to prominence were blocked?


My father came of age in Fascist Italy, and was a champion backstroker on his town Gaeta’s team. He told the story that they made it to the national championships in Bologna. They were powerful swimmers, having learned in the open Mediterranean, but alas, they had never swum in pools, so didn’t know how to do flip turns, losing valuable seconds. They lost. He did have signed certificates from Mussolini, though, which were lost over the years since.

Gaetan swimmers.

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