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Pellegrini Under Wrong Type Of Pressure

Oct 14, 2011  - Craig Lord

Federica Pellegrini, Olympic 200m freestyle champion, is at the centre of a dispute over an invitation to serve as flag bearer for Italy at the London 2012 Games. She says 'no', the blazers say 'come on, we're not asking you to carry The Cross'.

Pellegrini has all but declined the invitation, noting that swimming is first up on the programme and she would have to race the day after standing in a stadium for up to eight hours before getting to bed late. 

Gazzetta dello Sport reports the response of CONI president Gianni Petrucci thus: "I understand. But to carry the flag is not the Way of the Cross." He adds a yet more bitter note when he suggests that the swimmer is not acting with maturity.

In the swimming world, it comes down to this: if Pellegrini does indeed serve as flag carrier to Italy, the smart money will be on one of her rivals defeating the two-times world champion and world record holder over 400m freestyle, from home hope and defending champion Rebecca Adlington (who, assuming she makes her national team, will not be attending the opening ceremony at her home Games, her duty bound in water)  to the Aussies, Chinese, Americans and others stacking up behind the 4-minute barrier that is yet to be demolished by an athlete in textile suit (Pellegrini was the first and only sub-minute swimmer in a shiny suit of the kind now banned).

The attendance of swimmers at the Olympic opening ceremony has long been a delicate issue, with many an athlete wishing to be there and indeed declaring it their right to be there. However, anyone serious about wishing  to take on the likes of Phelps, Lochte, Thorpe, Pellegrini, Adlington, Franklin, Magnussen, Cielo, Sun, Biedermann, Agnel, Soni, Park and a whole shoal of others at the edge of their game on the day may think twice about the merits of standing in a stadium for several hours on the eve of battle. 

Pellegrini has thought about it and her choice is one that will be appreciated, understood and supported by anyone wishing to see the best of the Italian at London 2012 - regardless of the views of those who don't have to think too deeply about the pros and cons of standing around for hours on end, what with all those taxing VIP gatherings to attend come the Games.

In her blog, Pellegrini writes: "What jokers you guys are! I repeat the exact same words that I said yesterday during an interview on the subject …Who does not understand that for me to stand for 8 hours the the day before the Olympic race (one that I have been cooking for four years) is impossible …" 

Only those who "lack intelligence" or "do not understand what it means to stand for eight hours" would not get it, she notes in a swipe at Petrucci. She would love to be at the ceremony but adds: "… it's not my fault if swimming is the first sport on the program in the morning after the opening night of the Games. I hope I've been clear enough". 

Not enough to sway Petrucci, apparently, who stood before the Italian media like a man hammering his head against a brick wall, taking a breather to sigh: "I confirm everything I said on Wednesday: to carry the flag is not the Way of The Cross."

In sporting terms, it may well be: Pellegrini would be the pride of Italy as the flag fluttered in London's night air next July but we all know what follows pride - and so does Pellegrini.

So too does President of the Italian swim federation and Vice-President of FINA, Paolo Barelli. In an open letter, he backs the swimmer in writing: "Allow me to intervene to defuse misunderstanding and highlight how Federica Pellegrini has always been happy to be linked to the country, the flag and Italian sport, on many occasions, devoting a large part of her success to the President of Italy Giorgio Napolitano, or by attaching her image with enthusiasm to the ceremony of the 2009 World Championships in Rome, to celebrate the 150 years of Unity and the candidacy of Rome 2020 to host the Games, and, recently, the opening of the school year. 

"We all know how Federica regrets not being able to participate for the third time at the opening ceremony of the Games and, when chosen by CONI for the role of standard bearer, she grieves [at not being able to accept] because of the schedule, in which swimming is first up, and because she wishes to to honour Italy and the tricolour."

Pellegrini comes under pressure too from former Italian flag-bearers from other sports. Fencer Giovanna Trillini, flag bearer in Atlanta 1996 and gold medallist in the Foil Team event (a bit like a relay), said: "It was an immense joy. The fact of standing so many hours or less, I never even gave it a thought … it was an additional medal. I would have done it even if I had had to compete that same night." In fact, she competed six days after the ceremony.

Italian flag bearer in Beijing 2008,  canoeist Antonio Rossi weighed in with: "It is a privilege that only a few get. It is absurd to refuse. It's a unique moment, more exciting than when you're on the podium because you represent Italy. It is an honour." Dubious in his belief that to carry a flag is more honourable than to win a gold medal, Rossi also claims that two hours of standing is what is required, not eight, even though there is plenty of evidence that two hours would not suffice, athletes often corralled in, with no chance of leaving the parade or stadium, let alone getting passed security (specific accreditation applies) and having to wait their turn to walk in and walk out of the ceremony. 

The deadlines for reporting for opening ceremony duty suggest that a minimum of five hours of an athletes' time would be required but that is something that Petrucci could easily check with London organisers.

For the record, Rossi competed in five Games and won five medals including three gold. In Beijing, flag-bearing was his sole honour. He missed the podium when it came to race day.