The Italian Olympic team’s hashtag on social media for the Tokyo Games translates loosely as “Astonish the world.”
Who knew, though, that the Latin phrase “Stupor mundi” would be so appropriate, especially for a track team who did not win a single medal at the previous Olympics in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.
The 2016 Games seem like a distant memory now that Italy have won five medals in track and field — all gold — at this year’s Olympics.
After Marcell Jacobs surprised everyone by winning gold in the 100m last weekend — moments after teammate Gianmarco Tamberi had tied for gold in the high jump — Italy did it again with an unexpected victory in the 4x100m relay on Friday that marked their first relay gold in Olympic history.
So what’s the formula behind this sudden success?
“Work hard, dream big,” Jacobs said after helping teammates Lorenzo Patta, Eseosa Desalu and Filippo Tortu win an event that usually belongs to the powerhouse US team — or, in recent years, Jamaica led by the now-retired Usain Bolt.
With the US having failed to qualify for the final after a series of botched handoffs, Italy saw an opportunity.
“We believed for real that we could take the gold,” Jacobs said.
The Azzurri demonstrated that belief the moment they stepped onto the track as the stadium announcer introduced the eight teams for the final.
While other squads posed or flexed their muscles in unison, the Italians simply walked out.
“Before we walked out we were discussing what our intro would be and we said to each other: ‘We’re not going to do anything for the intro. We’ll win and that will be our intro,’” Jacobs said.
Entering the final weekend of competition, Italy were tied with the US for the most golds at the track. What is more is that across all sports at the Tokyo Games, Italy had already won more medals (38 after Friday) than they had at any previous Olympics.
“Gimbo [Tamberi] and I really provided a spark for everyone,” Jacobs said.
Italy’s magical summer began when they won the Eurovision Song Contest in May with the band Maneskin.
Also, at Wimbledon this year, tennis player Matteo Berrettini became the first Italian man to reach a Grand Slam final in 45 years.
Then Italy’s soccer team last month won the UEFA Euro Championship title.
Jacobs, who attended some of the soccer team’s games in Rome, said he drew inspiration from their performances.
“Two gold medals in two Olympics: I still haven’t realized what happened the first time, so imagine the second,” Jacobs said. “This gold means more to me than the individual one, because I get to share it with a team that’s been together for a long time.”
“We’ve run so many races together, races in which quite often we’ve made mistakes, but slowly but surely you learn from those errors and here we are winning the gold medal at the Olympics,” he said.
Jacobs was born in Texas to an American father and an Italian mother.
His parents split when Jacobs was six months old and he moved to Italy and did not get to know his father until they reconnected about a year ago by telephone, as the sprinter tried to learn about his roots.
Desalu was born in Italy to Nigerian parents.
So for a country that has been slow to accept immigration, the multicultural relay squad is a sign of progress.
“We don’t even realize it,” Jacobs said. “We’re all here competing under one flag and we never had any doubts about that.”
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