Rome - Luigi D'Onofrio (c) © Copyright
With little more than 24 hours to go before the action begins at the third stop in the ÅF Golden League, D’Onofrio took time out to relax by the pool, under clear blue skies, at the meeting hotel, and to reflect on his 15 years in post. And, thinking back to last year, Yelena Isinbayeva came to mind.
Isinbayeva provided the 2008 Golden Gala highlight by setting her 22nd World Record in the women’s Pole Vault, beating her three-year-old mark of 5.01m with 5.03. The Russian had been motivated, she said, by the fuss surrounding Jennifer Stuczynski’s recent jumps of 4.90 and 4.92.
“It made me so angry because everyone started to say that Isinbayeva was finished, we have a new star,” the Russian said at the time. “It made me angry and I am happy for that feeling because I didn’t feel it enough since my last World record.”
Which begged the question to D’Onofrio: “Is there anything you can do to make Isinbayeva angry before her event tomorrow to stir her into another World record?” Apparently, he has taken care of it already.
“It is a joke,” D’Onofrio said, “but yesterday we had a misunderstanding with the hotel. We reserved her a suite, naturally, but they gave her the wrong key and she went to a normal room. She called me and said ‘what happened?” I said this was a mistake but I hope she is angry for this.”
While another Isinbayeva World record would be welcome, most of all D’Onofrio is looking forward to the men’s 100m and the match-up between Tyson Gay, the 100/200m World champion, and Asafa Powell, the former 100m World record holder. Never mind that Olympic champion and World Record holder Usain Bolt is missing.
Asked which event might provide the biggest moment tomorrow, D’Onofrio said: “For sure the 100m because I decided to put Asafa and Tyson in the same race. We will see in Rome who is the real competitor of Usain. This is important because everybody is focused now on Usain but we need a competitor for him. I think they are both very strong and for Usain it will not be easy. For the good of athletics, and the sprints, we need not only a king, we need a fighter, a challenger.”
Which of the two does he pick to win, Gay or Powell? Less bold than Gerhard Janetsky, the Berlin meeting director, who in successive years, prior to his show, has correctly forecast that Jeremy Wariner would lose over 400m to LaShawn Merritt (2008) and that Blanka Vlasic would be beaten in the High Jump by Ariane Friedrich (2009), D’Onofrio would not be drawn.
“Asafa has run here three or four times, maybe more, for Tyson it is the first time,” D’Onofrio said. “He came here one week before to prepare and I really appreciate this way of doing it.”
And why isn’t Bolt here? “With Bolt we had a preliminary talk in December, and he was very happy to come, but the money is not so much and I had to take a decision – to take Usain and for many other athletes not to be happy or continue to have all the athletes and have Usain next year.”
Meeting director since 1994, this is D’Onofrio’s 16th Golden Gala. “But I have been involved since the first edition,” he says proudly.
And what, in that time, has been the biggest change? “When I was appointed meeting director in 1994, the Golden Gala was not a top meeting,” D’Onofrio said. “I think that, in the last 10 years, the Golden Gala is one of the top meetings. I think that I have done a good job. It is true that Rome is a big city – we have a lot of sports and it is not easy to have more and more supporters - but since the first edition of the Golden League in 1998, when we had 60,000 spectators compared with normally 10,000 before that, I have been able to get 35,000.”
Back in the 1980s and 1990s Italian athletics was characterised by its great middle and long distance runners, such as Alberto Cova, Salvatore Antibo, Gennaro Di Napoli and Alessandro Lambruschini. Now, not only have these track events given way to sprints as the dominant international circuit feature, Italy is struggling for stars.
Alex Schwazer (50km Walk) is Italy’s sole Olympic champion from Beijing and the nation could finish no higher than sixth in the European Team Championships, in Leiria, Portugal, last month, where only Nicola Vizzoni (men’s Hammer Throw) and Libania Grenot (women’s 400m) gained individual triumphs.
Of the traditional European powerhouses, only Spain lagged behind Italy, with Germany, Russia, Great Britain and France ahead. This creates problems for D’Onofrio,, especially as Andrew Howe, the 2007 Long Jump runner-up at the World Championships, remains sidelined.
“If I had one Italian athlete running, for example, the 1500m in 3:30/ 3:31 or the 100m in 9.98 probably I would have 10,000 or 20,000 more spectators,” D’Onofrio said. “This year I expect the same (spectators) as last year but if, for example, Andrew Howe was competing, for sure I could have 5000 to 6000 more. Howe has a little injury.
“When I started as meeting director, the interest was more focused on the long distances and we tried to have good long distance in the Golden Gala. In the years before we had good Italian runners in long distance so the public was really interested.”
Now aged 61, the former 13.90sec 110m hurdler was bolder when it came to answering the question about which of the five remaining jackpot contenders (Damu Cherry is not running in Rome) would last the course.
“Sanya (Richards) and Yelena, for sure, and (Kenenisa) Bekele too,” D’Onofrio said. “I don’t think (Tero) Pitkamaki can go to the end because (Andreas) Thorkildsen is at the same level and he can beat him once. Kerron (Stewart) I am afraid will lose tomorrow.”
David Powell for the IAAF