Lia Manoliu at the 1964 Olympic Games (Getty Images) © Copyright
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A tribute to Lia Manoliu

Giorgio Reineri remembers one of the great women athletes of all times

The death of Lia Manoliu struck the world of Athletics and the Olympics in a year which we would have liked to have been full of moments of joy, most especially for women’s sport.

For 1998 has been dedicated by the IAAF to "Women in Athletics", coinciding with an important anniversary: the seventieth year since the first inclusion of women in the Olympic Games.

Lia Manoliu was one of the most exceptional protagonists of both of these closely-linked worlds - the worlds of Athletics and of the Olympics. She was a woman who, through study and sport, created her own independence, winning Olympic gold in competition and finally becoming President of the Romanian Olympic Committee and an example to womankind.

The athlete Lia Manoliu was one of the legends of my youth. She practised a discipline - the discus - which is thousands of years old and which owes much of its modern appeal to those classical origins.

When we look at the statue of the discus thrower, sculpted by Mirone, and compare it with the action of today’s throwers, we can see that none of the artistic grace of the gesture has been lost. There is a harmony of movement which belongs to Nature and those who are able to interpret it have their place among the "Gods of the Stadium".

Lia Manoliu was one of the most magnificent and consistent performers of that ancient gesture. At the tender age of twenty, she made her Olympic debut in Helsinki, taking sixth place behind those giants of the day, the Russian Nina Romaschkova (later Ponomaryeva) and the Georgian Nina Dumbadze, both of whom competed in those days for the Soviet Union, of course. Nina Dumbadze was a solemn giant of a woman, with the sweetest of faces; she would take up the discus in her large and gentle hands and throw it out as far as 57.02 metres - a record distance which stood for eight years.

Lia Manoliu too had elegant and fine hands, with long fingers which might have belonged to a pianist. To throw the discus, the fingers must be particularly strong and sensitive, for it is they which, at the moment of the release, give the discus its correct trajectory and rotation.

France’s Micheline Ostermeyer was a perfect exponent of this talent: in addition to being a great shot putter and high-jumper, she was Olympic discus champion in 1948, before becoming an extraordinary pianist and winning the first prize in the Paris Conservatoire.

This was a time when élite sport started to take shape once more after the interruption of the war, and Lia Manoliu was certainly one of its best qualified representatives. She had lived though this period of great transformation, from the relatively "primitive" time of the early Fifties to the sophistication of the 1968 Olympic Games.

Yet it was in 1968 - in Mexico City and at her fifth Olympics - that Manoliu finally took Olympic gold, after two bronze medals. She was 36 years old, an exceptional age, in those days, for a woman athlete. A challenge to the laws of ageing, which she was to take still further when she participated in her sixth, and last, Olympics where she finished - now forty years old - in ninth place.

This extraordinary longevity often leads me to line Lia Manoliu up alongside the memory of another great discus thrower, Adolfo Consolini who, in Rome 1960 - after a gold (London, 1948) and a silver (Helsinki, 1952) - had the honour of competing in his fourth Olympics. Knowing both of them, it was easy to discover some common traits - their availability, their natural kindness and ability to make friends - all qualities which, coupled with their athletic talents, must have endeared them to the gods.

I would like to think - in a moment of nostalgia - that it was this endearment of the gods which led the mortal lives of Adolfo Consolini and Lia Manoliu to be so short: that the talents of a man and a woman, two champions of Athletics, might the sooner enlighten the heavens above..