By Giorgio Reineri
21 January 2001 - Out of the ballot boxes those of the elections for the presidency of the Croatian Athletics Federation comes the name of Luciano Susanj. And for this writer, the news of his election immediately awakens memories of that distant September of 1974 when a blonde-haired streak of lightning had the crowds in the Olympic Stadium in Rome on their feet.
That streak of lightning was Luciano Susanj, during the final of the 800m at the European Championships and the local favourite was Italys Marcello Fiasconaro. The latter was the world record holder with 1:43.7, set in Milan the year before but there were a number of emerging stars also there, like Steve Ovett, Willy Wulbeck and Markku Taskinen. And then there were solid and threatening men from East Germany: Dieter Fromm and Gerald Stolle as well as Vladimir Ponomaryov of the Soviet Union.
Fiasconaro sprung straight into the lead at the starters gun, like someone with the devil on his tail. He ran the first circuit of the track like a man possessed, accelerating all the time to the roar of his fans: 25.3 seconds for the first 200m, 24.8 for the second. Behind him, though, the pack was hanging on: not one had dropped back. Fiasconaro kept up the pace with his last breath: 1:17.6 at the 600m mark.
It was then that Luciano Susanj burst into the lead, with the speed of a hare, to take the gold with a time of 1:44.07. Contesting him at the line was an athlete who was destined to become one of the greatest middle distance runners of all time Steve Ovett but Susanj made him look like the lad that he still was at that time, whilst Marcello Fiasconaro crossed the line, breathless and beaten. It would be the last race of his career.
So sudden was the appearance of Susanj on the athletics scene that few had time to learn much about him. Then, as quickly as he had come, Susanj disappeared. All that was left was that distant memory, and the regret that the Yugoslavia of those times had not taken better care to cultivate his extraordinary talent.
Today, Luciano Susanj has returned to Athletics and has every intention of staying, to help the youngsters of Croatia discover a love for this sport.
"I know that many people gave me up for lost, following my victory," he told us. "The fact is that I started athletics late, in 1970, when I was already 22 years old, and in those days we used to run for passion, not for gain. In 1974, I was married and had two children: I had to think about looking after them, rather than of running. After my win in Rome, I realised that there was no way that I could prepare for the Olympics in Montreal and work at the same time. I had to make a choice and I chose to earn a living.
"But I never really left sport altogether. I gained a diploma in physical education and I have always taught sport to the youngsters here in Istria, especially in my home town of Rijeka. Today, I am the deputy-mayor of Rijeka and a member of the Croatian parliament. I am also a vice-president of the national Olympic committee and, as president of the Athletics Federation, I hope to be able to do a lot for our sport. Athletics is a sport that I have always loved and which has given me some of the best moments of my life. But then, how could I ever forget the champions of those days: Fiasconaro, Juantorena, Mennea, Borzov, Simeoni and Szewinska? My dream is to see, one day, someone like them come out of Croatia."