Filippo Tortu at the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome (Philippe Fitte) © Copyright
Feature

The ‘Tortu effect’: young sprinter’s rise lifting hopes for Italy’s sprint relay ambitions

After attracting considerable attention during his standout U20 career, Filippo Tortu didn’t take long to command the spotlight in his first season of senior competition.

Last June, the 2016 world U20 100m silver medallist became the first Italian sprinter to break the 10-second barrier with his 9.99 dash at the IAAF World Challenge meeting in Madrid, where he finished second to China’s Su Bingtian who sped 9.91 to equal the Asian record. In the process, Tortu broke the 39-year-old national record of 10.01 set by legendary Pietro Mennea just a few weeks before his 19.72 200m world record dash at the 1979 World University Games in Mexico City.

Still 20 at the time, Tortu (100 world rank: 13) had become the youngest European sprinter to break the event’s 10-second barrier.

“I cannot describe in words what I felt after breaking Mennea’s record in Madrid,” Tortu said. ““Mennea’s Italian record had always been a dream since I was a kid. I think that Pietro is still the greatest Italian sprinter of all time. I am happy with my achievement, but he wrote the history of Italian athletics.”

One month earlier, Tortu clocked 10.03 at the Memorial Giulio Ottolia in Savona, finishing ahead of close friend Lamont Marcel Jacobs who clocked 10.08. It was the first time two Italian sprinters dipped under 10.10 in the same race.

Savona was the perfect build-up to the Rome Golden Gala Pietro Mennea Diamond League stop eight days later, where Tortu finished third in 10.04 behind Ronnie Baker and Jimmy Vicaut. But he beat three heralded and consistent sub-10 sprinters: Christian Coleman, Akani Simbine and Michael Rodgers.

“I could not believe that I was able to beat Coleman and other great stars,” Tortu said. “I felt the magic atmosphere of the Olympic Stadium. The support from the crowd gave me the extra push.” Most of his immediate family members were present, including his father Salvino, mother Paola, brother Giacomo, grandmother Vittoria, who lives in Rome, and his grandmother Titta, who, Tortu said, follows him everywhere”, even to his Madrid race two weeks later.

 

Filippo Tortu in Monaco (Giancarlo Colombo)Filippo Tortu in Monaco (Giancarlo Colombo) © Copyright

 

His first sub-10 heightened expectations for August’s European Championships in Berlin, where he travelled as one of Italy’s biggest medal hopes. In what turned out to be the finest 100m final in European Championships history, Tortu finished fifth in 10.08, the fourth fastest time of his career. In 22 of the previous 23 editions, his time would have been enough to land him on the podium.

“After crossing the finish line I was disappointed because it was the most important race of the year. A few hours later I reanalysed the race and I changed my mind. I realized that I had run a good race and I could not complain.”

The ‘Tortu effect’

Tortu leads a new generation of Italian sprinters who are aiming for a top-10 finish in the 4x100m relay at the IAAF World Relays Yokohama 2019 in May to qualify for the World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 and continue Italy’s strong relay tradition.

The so-called “Tortu-effect” has had a positive impact on Italian sprinting raising the hopes for a relay team that can battle for a spot in both the Yokohama and Doha finals. Among the sprinters coming to the fore at international level are 25-year-old Eseosa “Fausto” Desalu, who finished sixth in the competitive European Championships 200m final clocking 20.13, on the Italian all-time list second only to Mennea’s current European record of 19.72.

Another is Jacobs, 24, who first made waves as a long jumper but now counts himself as a 10.08 sprinter.

“Without Marcell Jacobs, and Marcell without me, we would not have come out with these record times,” Tortu said. “He is a good friend. There is no rivalry but we push each other.”

“We are working on the 4x100 relay for Yokohama,” Tortu said. “We all are close friends and we form a great group.”

From fast roots 

The product of a sporting family, Tortu inherited his passion for athletics from his father and coach Salvino, a Sardinian sprinter who clocked a 10.6 100m PB in the 1980s before shifting his focus towards the pursuit of a law degree. (He obtained that at 22.) Similarly, his grandfather, Giacomo, was a 10.8 sprinter before he began working as a lawyer and a criminal justice university professor after the Second World War.

 

Italian sprinter Filippo Tortu at the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016 (Getty Images)Italian sprinter Filippo Tortu at the IAAF World U20 Championships Bydgoszcz 2016 (Getty Images) © Copyright

 

His elder brother Giacomo was also a strong sprinter, with a seventh place finish at the 2011 European U20 Championships among his accolades. He was the first to predict his brother’s potential after Filippo won a 60m race in a “Fastest Boy in Milan” competition, an event organised by his first athletics club Atletica Riccardi. He clocked 7.70.

“I enjoyed Filippo’s Italian record in Madrid a lot. It was the best day in my life,” Salvino Tortu said. “I had always dreamed this moment, since my son started competing. 

“We try to have a relaxed approach and train with a smile on the face. Athletics talent has always been an important part of our family.” As proof, he shares a story of inviting his future wife, Paola, to a track for a 100m race. “I gave her a 50 metres lead. I wanted to see if she had a sprint talent.”

His initial claim to fame came at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games where he tumbled to the track at the finish of his 200m prelim, a freak accident that resulted in two broken arms. But by 2016 he was already representing Italy at age 18, at both the U20 and senior level. He took silver at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Bydgoszcz that year, second behind Noah Lyles, and narrowly missed the 100m final at the European Championships, where he improved to 10.19.

A year later he won the European U20 100m title and reached the 200m semifinals at the IAAF World Championships London 2017. Less than a year later, he joined the sub-10 club. 

That sub-10 performance was widely celebrated in Italy, its impact reaching well beyond the confines of the athletics world. Fans selected him as the 2018 Sportsman of the Year at the Annual Gazzetta Award Gala organised by the sports daily Gazzetta dello Sport. In the poll he beat golf star and Ryder Cup winner Francesco Molinari and European 100m swimming freestyle champion Alessandro Miressi.

Tortu began his 2019 season on a high, improving his 60m best to 6.58, a national U23 record, in his first indoor race of the season.

“In my debut in Ancona I felt I was really flying in the last 20-30 metres. In anticipation of the summer season I am very confident.”

Before heading to Yokohoma, Tortu will train in Tenerife with Zharnel Hughes and Reece Prescod, the European 100m gold and silver medallists, before turning his focus to his individual races.

Tortu confirmed that he’ll kick off that portion of his season on 29 May in Savona, one week before lining up for the 200m at Rome’s Golden Gala Diamond League fixture on 6 June.

“In 2019 I set the goal to dip under 10 seconds again in the 100m and I will run the 200m more frequently,” he said. “I want to run over both distances in Doha and reach the World Championships final.”

Diego Sampaolo for the IAAF