To describe Gianmarco Tamberi as a colourful figure was literally true on Wednesday (1) at the hotel for the IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome, clad as he was in a bright yellow t-shirt, black leggings and deep red shoes ahead of the Golden Gala Pietro Mennea.
But it was the natural exuberance of Italy’s recently installed world indoor high jump champion as he moved with glee from one TV crew or gaggle of reporters to the next – the colour of his character, in fact – which was so compelling.
On the eve of a competition in Rome’s Olympic stadium that will see the dashing local hero, and his compatriot Marco Fassinotti, take on the two men who have taken the event to new levels of competitiveness in recent years in Mutaz Essa Barshim and Bogdan Bondarenko, the level of home excitement and expectation – judging by all the fuss – is clearly rising.
Tamberi, who turned 24 today, comes from high jumping stock. His grandfather, Bruno, jumped 1.86m in 1939, and his father Marco, who was 15th at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, once held the Italian indoor record with 2.28m.
And while he is young, he is nevertheless experienced in an event where he took European junior bronze back in 2011. His progression towards the recent triumph in Portland has been, for all his personal vivacity, a relatively sure and steady thing. He competed at the 2012 Olympics, failing to reach the final, then placed seventh at the 2014 European Championships and eighth at last year’s IAAF World Championships.
Over the winter, all that experience has begun to tell at a higher level as he has completed an unbeaten sequence of five competitions culminating in his global indoor gold.
The dramatic nature of that victory in March was perfectly fitting for an athlete who habitually shaves off half his beard – always the right-hand side – before competing as part of his ‘trademark’, and who once jokingly jibed at some of his fellow high jumpers as looking as if they were ‘zombies’ when they competed.
After clearing 2.29m and 2.33m at his third and final attempt in Portland, he then achieved 2.36m – a height which ultimately proved beyond silver medallist Robbie Grabarz of Britain and bronze medallist Erik Kynard of the United States – at the first time of asking.
Then, with all other competitions over and 7000 spectators remaining in the Oregon Convention Center, Tamberi was in his element as all eyes were on him for three unsuccessful, but respectable, attempts at 2.40m, which would have been a US all-comers’ record as well as improving on his 2016 Italian indoor record of 2.38m.
Italy’s 1980 Olympic high jump champion Sara Simeoni once described Gianmarco’s father as being “un cavallo pazzo, come il figlio” – “A crazy horse, like his son”.
The son recalls this comment with a grin.
“When I talk with some athletes that competed against my father at that time, they say, yes, he was really crazy, like enjoying the track a lot, not like I am doing but almost,” he responds.
“Because my kind of crazy, if you want to call it that, is to have fun and to entertain the spectators and to enjoy, because I come from other sports like basketball where there is like a different feeling for entertainment.”
At the pre-event press conference Tamberi made the point – as did his fellow interviewees Barshim, Bondarenko and Fassinotti – that this year of the European Championships and Rio Olympics is about medals rather than heights
He doesn’t believe it will necessarily take 2.40m to win in Rio, but he wouldn’t rule it out.
“I think you need a bit less than 2.40m but I think a lot of jumpers now could jump 2.40m so I would not be surprised if someone will jump 2.40m in Rio – also if I will jump it!” he says.
“I think now five or six athletes can jump 2.40m so it would not be so strange if someone would win with this height. But you know it is just one competition; the Olympics is one day and it is difficult in this one day to do the best.”
Tamberi’s World Indoor Championships victory has given him, as you might expect, renewed confidence heading towards this summer’s main tests.
“For sure it gives you a lot of adrenaline and desire to do it,” he says. “I made the Olympic Games in 2012 and for me it was just a competition for like appearance. I was not fighting for the title because it was impossible for me to get something there.
“Now it is a bit different. At this Olympic Games I want to be one of the most important in the high jump there. So I have been fighting and training a lot and doing everything 200 per cent to make my dream real.
“For sure I am not now in the best shape,” he added. “I worked a lot in training after Portland, we did some big quantity of training for being in shape in Rio. Now I am jumping with two steps less than usual in my approach, so this is not my best shape ever, but now I want to improve a bit because the 2.25m in Rabat was just the start.
“Maybe from Rabat I expected more, but not too much more. Maybe 2.30m was the best solution for that competition. Now it is Rome I will give it more focus, and I will be more and more ready with each day.
“After my last competition this month, on 9 June, I will do some more training and after one month will go directly to Rio.”
The idea of all that colour emerging in Brazil’s vibrant and colourful capital is something for every supporter of track and field, Italian or otherwise, to anticipate very keenly.
Mike Rowbottom for the IAAF