Before last month, only one Italian athlete had ever won at an IAAF Diamond League competition. At the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games in London, not only did that tally double to two, but Italy secured its first ever 1-2 finish at an IAAF Diamond League event.
Marco Fassinotti and Gianmarco Tamberi finished first and second respectively in the high jump at the London Olympic Stadium. Fassinotti won with 2.31m, while Tamberi cleared 2.28m to finish ahead of world indoor champion Mutaz Essa Barshim on count-back.
Fassinotti now sits third in the Diamond Race standings, three places in front of his compatriot. But since the competition in the British capital, Tamberi has emerged as the top Italian high jumper, beating Fassinotti in Stockholm and Eberstadt.
In Eberstadt, at the famous high jump meeting, Tamberi twice broke the Italian record; first with 2.35m and then with 2.37m to move up to equal third on this year’s world list, tied with the likes of world champion Bogdan Bondarenko, Olympic silver medallist Erik Kynard and Pan American champion Derek Drouin, who won in Eberstadt on count-back.
Fassinotti, meanwhile, won his second Italian outdoor title in his home city of Turin with 2.30m before narrowly missing at 2.35m.
It was a special win for ‘poster-boy’ Fassinotti who started out in athletics at the age of 11 as a long jumper. Six years later, in 2006, he took up the high jump and over the course of the next two years his PB improved from 1.90m to 2.17m under the guidance of former high jumper Valeria Musso.
After clearing 2.28m to win the 2010 Italian Under-23 Championships in Pescara, Fassinotti finished ninth at the 2010 European Championships, sixth at the 2011 European Indoor Championships and fifth at the 2011 European Under-23 Championships.
But his recent national title was his first victory in Turin since that 2011 season.
“I dedicate the national title in Turin to the fans who came to watch me and gave me a strong support,” said Fassinotti. “I miss Turin a lot. I felt pressure on the eve of the Italian Championships. I agreed an aggressive strategy with my coach and I jumped 2.24m and 2.30m on my first attempts.
“I am becoming a good competitor but I am disappointed for not clearing 2.35m as there’s a difference between having the potential to clear this height and being able to do it.”
In January 2013 Fassinotti moved to Birmingham to train with British coach Fuzz Ahmed, a former 2.21m high jumper who guided Robbie Grabarz to the Olympic bronze medal in 2012.
“I decided to move to Birmingham in search of new motivation,” said Fassinotti. “In Turin, I could not make any progress and it was difficult to train during the winter as there are no good indoor facilities. In 2010 I came into contact with the group of British athletes during a period of training in Formia. Robbie Grabarz was looking for a training partner. Fuzz contacted me and I left Italy at the start of 2013.
“It took a couple of months to adapt to Birmingham but I feel comfortable now. I have integrated so well in Birmingham that people mistake me as a local inhabitant who speaks the dialect of the West Midlands.”
Fassinotti set his first Italian record at the 2014 Italian Indoor Championships in Ancona where he cleared 2.34m, improving the long-standing outright Italian record set outdoors by Marcello Benvenuti in 1989.
After finishing sixth at the IAAF World Indoor Championships that year, Fassinotti went on to clear 2.30m for the first time outdoors at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Monaco and finished equal seventh at the European Championships in Zurich, tied with Tamberi.
“Sopot and Zurich were the first steps of a long-term plan I set with my coach which leads to Rio de Janeiro 2016,” said Fassinotti. “That is the main goal of my career.”
Fassinotti has developed a special relationship with Ahmed and his training partners which goes beyond the athletics track.
“I train in excellent facilities at the High Performance Centre in Loughborough,” said Fassinotti. “Fuzz is not only my coach but also a very special person. I have become part of his family. I enjoy spending time playing with his small children. We spend time together and go to the cinema with Robbie Grabarz and Isobel Pooley.
Fassinotti’s breakthrough continued in 2015, equalling his own Italian indoor record with 2.34m in Hustopece and then going on to equal the outdoor Italian record with 2.33m in Oslo, where he finished ahead of Barshim, Bondarenko and Kynard.
World record-holder Javier Sotomayor was the first to congratulate Fassinotti.
“Sotomayor was impressed by my performance and this makes me proud,” said Fassinotti. “What made me happy in Oslo is the fact that I jumped 2.29m with the tracksuit I usually wear during the warm-up.”
Tamberi takes over
Fassinotti’s outdoor Italian record was improved three weeks later by Tamberi, who cleared 2.34m in Cologne. Tamberi, who sports a half-shaved beard when he jumps, then bettered it twice more in Eberstadt, culminating with his 2.37m leap.
Nicknamed ‘Gimbo’ and drummer in a rock group called ‘The Dark Melody, 23-year-old Tamberi is the son of former 2.28m Italian record-holder and 1980 Olympic finalist Marco Tamberi and the younger brother of 78.61m javelin thrower Gianluca.
“It was an incredible result in Eberstadt, but in my previous competitions I felt that I could jump these heights, especially when I jumped 2.28m in Buhl with a big margin over the bar,” said Tamberi, whose best before this year was 2.31m, set at the 2012 Italian Championships just one month after turning 20.
“There was a super atmosphere in Eberstadt,” he added. “I enjoyed the support from the crowd. I knew that I was I was in good form as I jumped 2.29m in London and Stockholm and finished in the top three at those two Diamond League meetings. My third attempt at 2.39m in Eberstadt was not too bad.”
“The rivalry with Gianmarco helps us to go beyond our limits,” said Fassinotti. “There’s also Silvano Chesani, who jumped 2.31m to take the European indoor silver medal in Prague, and Alessia Trost, who took the European indoor silver in Prague and her second European under-23 title in Tallinn.
“It’s a great motivation to have so many good jumpers.”
The future of Italian high jumping also looks to be in good hands. Last month, 17-year-old Stefano Sottile won the world youth title in Cali with an equal PB of 2.20m.
“It has not yet sunk in what I did in Cali,” said Sottile, who also comes from Piedmont and is coached by Fassinotti’s first coach Valeria Musso. “It was a hard competition as I needed 16 jumps to win the gold. I found the strength thanks to the support from my team-mates.
“Fassinotti and Tamberi are big stars,” added Sottile. “I have just started out in my career, but my dream is to compete for the Italian senior team. It’s a magical period for Italian high jumpers.”
No Italian man has ever won a high jump medal at a senior global championship. But, just like Italy’s fortunes on the IAAF Diamond League circuit, that looks set to change in the near future.
Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF