It was almost like a return home.
Primo Nebiolo was remembered Tuesday during a subdued memorial at a tiny stadium - the sort of place track and field meets were held before he revolutionised the sport as president of its governing body.
The ceremony was short on the pomp Nebiolo seemed to thrive on during his time as one of the most influential and controversial figures in world sports.
"With Nebiolo's death we lose one of the great sports leaders of the century. He was able to elevate athletics to the place it deserved in our contemporary society,'' said International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, who eulogised the multilingual Nebiolo in Spanish, French and English.
"He was an outstanding world sports leader who dedicated his life to the growth of sports in general and athletics in particular.''
Nebiolo, who had led the International Amateur Athletic Federation since 1981 and was an IOC member for seven years, died Sunday after a heart attack. He was 76.
"He taught athletes to dream. He taught us to believe in ourselves, because no record was unbreakable, no event unwinnable,'' said Sara Simeoni, gold medallist in the high jump at the 1980 Olympics.
"I say goodbye, President. `President,' not 'Primo.' I can't call you by your name, just as one can't call one's own Dad by name.''
A long jumper in his youth, Nebiolo oversaw Italy's national track and field federation for 20 years and built the IAAF into a commercial and professional empire.
About 300 people attended the 45-minute public memorial service at Marmi Stadium, a small arena with white marble stands surrounded by 53 Romanesque statues of athletes.
The venue is shadowed by Rome's 80,000-capacity Olympic Stadium, a grander stage that hosted the 1987 World Championships.
Olympic Stadium is also home to the annual Golden Gala track meet, an event Nebiolo started in 1980 to bring together athletes from the United States and Soviet Union after the U.S.-led boycott of that summer's Moscow Olympics.
Samaranch bestowed upon Nebiolo the IOC's highest honour, the Gold Olympic Order. He placed the award's symbol, a gold necklace with the five Olympic rings, on Nebiolo's casket, took a step back, and bowed his head.
Other sports dignitaries in attendance included six-time pole vault world champion Sergey Bubka, former star miler Sebastian Coe, and Craig Masback, executive director of USA Track and Field.
"He made history in sports and did a lot for athletics. I saw that myself because my career was (parallel to) his,'' said Bubka, one of the pallbearers.
"I think we have lost a great personality.''
Pietro Mennea, the Italian whose longstanding 200-metre world record was broken by Michael Johnson in 1996, delivered the homily during a funeral Mass celebrated later Tuesday at Rome's Sacro Cuore Immacolato di Maria church.
Fomer Premier Giuliano Andreotti and Mayor Francesco Rutelli attended the Mass. Rutelli has said Rome's Jan. 1 IAAF Millennium Marathon will be run in Nebiolo's memory.
Howard Fendrich (AP)