Saturday, February 4, 2006

FROM MY SEAT: My 'Home' Games

Posted By on Sat, Feb 4, 2006 at 4:00 AM

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When the Games of the 20th Winter Olympics open later this week in Turin, Italy, you’ll have to pardon me for considering this my first hometown Games. It’s a stretch, admittedly, but likely the closest geographic tie I’ll ever establish to the Olympics.


You see, during the 1976-77 academic year, my dad took our family of four to Turin -- Torino to those who live there -- as he researched his doctoral thesis in economic history (on Count Cavour, the kingdom of Sardinia, and the unification of Italy in the mid-nineteenth century). He studied and taught a class at the University of Turin’s Institute of Economic History. And I got to spend second grade a cultural leap off the beaten path, at the American Cultural Association of Turin (ACAT). Along with being the first woman I can confess to having a crush on, our teacher -- Ms. Travis -- taught in English, a fundamental strategy of this unique school. My classmates, though, were an international conglomerate of 7-year-olds. In looking at my yearbook, I count three American, nine Italian, two British, and one German friend in my class. It was a year of education that went way beyond the three R’s.


Along with my fond memories at ACAT came the seeds of a love for sports that have grown to color my life in ways I dared not imagine in 1976. Before I could recite the St. Louis Cardinals’ batting order in less than a minute, I could shout “Forza Juve!” in support of an Italian soccer club that just might rival the standing of the New York Yankees here stateside. Founded in 1897, Juventus has won no fewer than 28 Italian league championships and is one of only four clubs to win all the major European trophies (the UEFA Cup, the Cup Winners Cup, and the European Cup). Taking the Yankees’ pinstripes up a bold notch, Juventus takes the field in striped jerseys that are really no different from an NFL referee’s. Shouts of “i bianconeri!” anywhere in northern Italy will call to mind instantly the black-and-white soccer gods of Turin.


Our year in Italy was extra special in soccer terms, as Juventus won its very first UEFA Cup in May 1977. Stars like Roberto Bettega, Marco Tardelli, Claudio Gentile, and goalie Dino Zoff found their way to my bedroom wall (thanks to posters inserted in La Stampa, Turin’s daily newspaper) and permanently into the hearts of a nation that loves soccer more than Americans do cheeseburgers. Tardelli, Gentile, and Zoff, by the way, would gain a degree of global fame in 1982 when they helped Italy win the World Cup.


So as U.S. Olympians like Bode Miller, Sasha Cohen, and Apolo Ohno seek to add their names to Italian -- and international -- sports history this month, forgive me for the flashbacks to those soccer stars jumping off my collectible stickers to this day. (I know Dad was teaching me the joy of baseball-card collecting, not to mention some grade-school economics, when he had me approach sidewalk newsstands, requesting “calciatori?” Discovering a Juve player as I opened a pack was found gold.)


It’s been 29 years since I’ve seen Turin, but I’m lucky enough to retain some appreciation for its beauty -- and chill! -- nestled as it is at the foot of the mighty Alps. Better yet, I retain memories of playing soccer at a nearby park, hopelessly undermanned against my foil (his name was Aldo). And I retain some astonishment at the street celebration when Juventus captured a championship, a party that took some violent, fiery twists at the hands of Torino fans (Torino being the other pro team in Turin; think Yankees-Mets with a dose of temperament that would make Tony Soprano recoil).


The beauty of the Olympics, of course, is that internecine rivals get caught up in, as corny as it sounds here in the twenty-first century, the spirit of sport for two weeks. When representing our country, our better nature tends to carry the day. It pleases me to see the world visiting a place I called home at such an important time in my life. I’m not sure who I’ll cheer the next two weeks, but I know HOW I’ll cheer: Forza Torino!

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