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Prim and elegant in a red trouser suit, with lipstick, a pearl necklace and brilliant blue eyes, Carla Marangoni answers the door to her top-floor apartment in Pavia, the town in northern Italy where she has lived all her 96 years.
She was only 12 when she won silver in the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, and all of her team mates have since passed away. “I’m the beautiful blonde one in this picture,” she says, bringing out the albums and opening up the memories, displaying the cheeky spirit that won the hearts of Italy.
She is tiny but still nimble as she gets up repeatedly from the sofa to retrieve mementoes, among them a pair of plastic gymnasts’ slippers that came as a homecoming prize. Each of the 12 girls from Pavia who competed also received a savings book with 100 lire. And that was that. “Athletes these days don’t do anything without being paid,” she says with a smile.
And she laughs constantly, posing for pictures in her modest modern home, full of bright flowers. There is an exercise bike too. “I do 15 minutes every day,” she says. She used to hike a lot in the mountains “but now I keep to the valleys”.
Amsterdam was the first games where women competed in athletics and gymnastics. The 12 girls travelled there by train and stayed on board the Salunto, an Italian ship moored on a canal. “No Olympic Village in those days,” she says, as she recalls how they stayed in the best cabins on the top deck. “The boxers were all down at the bottom,” she laughs.
The girls trailed in bronze position after the first of their three routines but came out with silver after exercises on wall bars and finally the jumps. “No cushions and mats,” she says. The Dutch team took gold. “They were older and had muscles. They were women and we were girls. They showed strength and we had elegance and harmony.”
Sadly she cannot show off her medals, which “went missing” some years back. One photograph she refuses to reveal is of her and Benito Mussolini, then Italy’s Fascist dictator, who came to congratulate the team after a qualifying competition. “He complimented me,” she says, but expresses no pride in her brief moment next to Il Duce. The nation’s sporting achievements often became Fascist propaganda tools.
Marangoni was in her twenties when Italy joined Germany in the war. By then she had stopped competing, had studied as an accountant and was among the first Italian women to get her driving licence and papers to skipper a motorboat. She worked in the city’s transport department, for a time under German occupation, and describes offering water to a group of Italian partisans under arrest. A policeman warned her away. “I never married. If I had I would never have done all that I did,” she says.
This year she is looking forward to watching the London games on television. She has already fired off a note to the head of the Italian Olympic committee, suggesting the athletes walk nicely in formation during the opening ceremony. “They were behaving like sheep in Beijing,” she says. She also worries about the stress of modern gymnastics on the bodies of young girls, and jumps up again to show what she says is a hollow in her otherwise splendidly shaped back, caused by accidents when she was young.
The conversation goes back to Amsterdam. Asked if she knew about the fate of four Jewish girls from the winning Dutch team who died 15 years later along with their coach in Nazi concentration camps, Marangoni falls silent. “I didn’t know that,” she says finally. “That is a tragedy.”