Philip Barker

This should have been the end of the first week of competition at Tokyo 2020, but the Olympic arenas have of course been silent. Olympic organisers may draw some measure of encouragement that 50 years ago another major international multi-sport event which was successfully staged one year later than planned. The Universiade was originally scheduled for 1969 but it finally took place in 1970.

By a curious stroke of fate, Tokyo had hosted the previous University Games in 1967 and had been hit by a postponement of its own. The Opening Ceremony was put back but only by 24 hours after heavy rain in the wake of Tropical Storm Louise. The remainder of the Games proceeded without problems.

The International University Sport Federation (FISU) had originally planned that the 1969 Universiade should be staged in the Soviet Union, but this plan did not materialise. When FISU met in Vienna in early 1968, it chose Lisbon to host the Games. 

The ageing Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio de Oliveira Salazar had been in power for 36 years. He was considered an authoritarian figure but, in 1968, he suffered a stroke and was forced to step down from his duties.

A few days later, the Portuguese authorities announced that they were unable to stage the Games. They had been scheduled to begin on August 27 1969.

The FISU official history described this as a “major political crisis”.

In 1969, the situation in Portugal was indeed unstable, with student demonstrations at the University of Coimbra. In addition, at around the time the Games would have taken place, there was flooding in the city of Lisbon.

The torch used at Turin 1970 ©Philip Barker
The torch used at Turin 1970 ©Philip Barker

Sir Douglas Logan, the chairman of the British University Sports Federation, offered an alternative host city for the Games.

“We have wanted to host the Games in Britain since the war but the size of the project up to now has made it impossible,” he said, suggesting a reduced programme comprising athletics, swimming, fencing and lawn tennis.

“We think we could organise a worthwhile sports meeting for these four sports at Crystal Palace.” 

In February 1969, the FISU Executive Committee entertained no such thoughts of downscaling. The President at that time was the ambitious Italian Primo Nebiolo. He had been the driving force behind the first Universiade held in Turin in 1959. Nebiolo wanted the Games to return to his home city.

“The Universiade returned by chance after a sudden renunciation by Lisbon and returned to the place of its birth to seek refuge”, said organisers.

That summer, when the teams from 58 countries arrived in Torino, they were welcomed in a special ceremony at the Piazza San Carlo with the brass band of the legion of the Carabinieri cadets. For the first time, the number of competitors topped 2,000. 

By this time, university sport had also adopted the idea of a torch relay.

The torch was made to resemble an 18th-century fuse used by Pietro Micca, the “heroic defender of the city” in the siege of 1706. It was lit at Micca’s statue and a ballad in his honour entitled The Fire of Freedom was performed by singer Roberto Balocco, himself a Turinese. 

Firework displays welcomed each continent in turn. The flame was carried by Italian athletes including hurdler Eddy Ottoz and sprinter Giusy Leone, both Olympic and Universiade medallists, and Italy’s Olympic and Universiade 200 metres champion Livio Berruti.

The torch procession through the city centre attracted a huge crowd, which organisers claimed was in excess of 150,000.

The formal Opening Ceremony was held at the Stadio Comunale close to the centre of Turin. This was the same stadium used in 1959 and began with the entrance of students in traditional medieval “academic” dress.

Nebiolo spoke at the Opening Ceremony of working “hard and long sometimes with great difficulties for the success of this event.”

The Games were opened by Italian Government representative Carlo Russo.

The oath was taken by Sergio Bello, Italy’s 400m gold medallist at the 1965 Universiade in Budapest.

The Turin 1970 Opening Ceremony ©CUSI
The Turin 1970 Opening Ceremony ©CUSI

The cauldron in the stadium was lit by representatives of the five continents. It was an idea which was used again two years later at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, when runners from each continent accompanied the torch-lighter. That was perhaps appropriate because these Games proved a reliable indicator of those likely to strike Olympic gold. 

As the Opening Ceremony came to a conclusion, Cagliari, that year’s Serie A champions took the field to play a match against Sporting Lisbon, so there was at least an echo of the original host city. In the early years of the Universiade, it was customary for a prestige friendly football match to be played on the opening night of the Games.

Not all the encounters during the Games were as amicable. During the basketball pool stage, Albania’s men refused to play against Israel and issued a statement explaining their reasons.

“As Albanians, we do not wish to directly meet the representatives of an aggressive Government which occupies Arab territories”.

The match was awarded to the Israelis by forfeit.

Many sides sent Olympic-standard squads to Turin and in the final the Soviet Union beat the defending champions from the United States. Aleksandr Belov was singled out as the difference between the two sides by technical experts. It was the first time that the Americans lost a match in the University Games but from their point of view, worse was to come two years later when the Soviets took gold, again at the Americans’ expense. It was Belov who scored the decisive basket in Munich too.

There was a similar portent in the men’s pole vault where Wolfgang Nordwig of East Germany took gold with a world-record 5.46m in another event hitherto dominated by the Americans. He would do the same at the Munich Olympics.

It was the first time that East Germans had competed as a separate nation at the Games.

Renate Meissner completed the sprint double to give notice of her abilities. As Renate Stecher, she repeated the performance at the Olympics.

A poster advertising the Universiade staged a year later than planned ©CUSI
A poster advertising the Universiade staged a year later than planned ©CUSI

Heide Rosendahl of West Germany won the long jump with a world-record leap of 6.84m, she too was destined for Olympic gold.

Hungary’s Miklós Németh, the javelin gold medalist, would eventually become Olympic champion 1976.

An established star delighted the home crowd. Diver Klaus Dibiasi was the reigning Olympic 10m champion and in Turin he was the king of the pool, with victories in both 3m and 10m events.

Other star names from the Mexico Olympics helped maintain the standard. British 400m hurdles champion David Hemery won over 110m hurdles and Soviet triple jump champion Viktor Saneyev added Universiade victory to his other honours.

As the Games came to a close, Giulio Onesti, the President of the Italian Olympic Committee, sent a message to the organisers.

“My greatest compliments for the magnificent success of the Universiade in the very best traditions of Italian sport.The standard of the competitors and the level of competition managed to excite the crowds with great interest.” 

Following Universiade tradition, the ceremonial flag was passed to Nick Rodis of the Lake Placid Organising Committee for the Winter Universiade. They in turn would pass it to the 1973 Summer hosts Moscow. By a twist of fate, Lake Placid and Moscow were later chosen to occupy the Olympic stage in the tumultuous year of 1980.

Turin’s rescue act was by no means the last time that the University Games would face uncertain organisation and in a curious echo of 1969, a similar but reduced event was held in 1989, almost 20 years after Lisbon had withdrawn. This was after the designated host city São Paulo withdrew, again only a few months before the appointed date.That summer the German city of Duisburg stepped in to the rescue.