Top international athletes converge in Rome for the 2019 edition of Italy’s annual track and field event.
The world’s fastest and strongest athletes will return to light up the Eternal City as the 39th Golden Gala Diamond League event opens at the Stadio Olimpico on Thursday 6 June.
The action-filled annual evening of athletics features 16 events on the track and in the field, and is a rare occasion to watch elite level sport at an affordable price, with the best seats selling for under €30 and the cheapest on offer for just €5.
The Golden Gala has taken place annually in Italy since 1980, when founder Primo Nebiolo had the idea of bringing together athletes from the United States and other NATO countries following the boycott of the 1980 Olympics.
It has since become part of the Diamond League, which, outside of the Olympic Games and the World Championships, is the pinnacle of athletics with competitors bidding for the biggest financial rewards in the sport across a season of events.
In total, there are 12 events each year, including those in other European cities such as Brussels, Zurich, London and Paris.
The night in Rome is the fourth event of this year’s calendar and comes one week after Stockholm (30 May) and precedes the competition in Oslo on 13 June.
Eight world records have been set during earlier competitions in Rome, including those by legendary pole-vault figures Sergey Bubka and Yelena Isinbayeva.
This year's event kicks off with the women’s 100m race, with the fastest women in the world set to light up the track.
Ivory Coast sprinter Murielle Ahoure claimed the overall 100m title in 2018 and was a model of consistency throughout the calendar of competitions. The 31-year-old will want to put her marker down on the competition again in 2019 – with just one year to go before the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
With the Olympics in mind, two-time gold medallist Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce from Jamaica will be another athlete to keep a firm eye on. The seven-time world champion holds the Jamaican record over 100m with a clocking of 10.70 seconds and ranks fourth on the list of all-time sprinters.
Fellow Jamaican Elaine Thompson and English Gardner from the USA are other names likely to feature in the evening’s big showcase.
Having taken place in Rome last year, the men’s 100m will not be part of the schedule this time around. Instead, the best male sprinters will be competing over 200m.
Nigeria’s Divine Oduduru was the first sprinter to break the coveted 20-second barrier over 200m in 2019, and the 23-year-old could be one to shine under the lights of the Olympic Stadium.
Hoping to challenge Oduduru will be Italian sprinter Eseosa Desalu, who won a silver medal at the 2018 Mediterranean Games. The 23-year-old from Casalmaggiore in Cremona province set a lifetime best of 20.13 seconds over the distance last year and is the second fastest Italian in history over the distance.
While Italy is not particularly known for its success on the track, there will be a number of home hopefuls among those bidding to get their hands on some coveted Diamond League points.
The full list of men’s events in 2019 is 200m, 800m, 5,000m, 110m hurdles, 400m hurdles, 3,000m steeplechase, high jump, triple jump and shot put.
For the women, the events on track will include the 100m, 400m, 1,500m and 400m hurdles, while the field events will be the pole vault, long jump and javelin.
For entertainment value, the men’s 110m hurdles will provide spectators with plenty to see. The sound of hurdles clattering as the runners glide down the track makes it a show-stopper to watch, and competition this year is red hot.
American Aries Merritt holds the world record in the event but faces an emerging threat from challengers including China’s Wenjun Xie, Jamaica’s Omar McLeod and fellow countrymen Grant Holloway and Daniel Roberts.
The Italy challenge will be spearheaded by Paolo Dal Molin, who set the third fastest time by an Italian in the sprint hurdles last year, clocking 13.40 seconds during a race in Berlin. Lorenzo Perini and Hassan Fofana are two other Italian hurdlers to look out for on the schedule.
Ayomide Folorunso, who emigrated to Italy from Nigeria in 2004, ran a personal best in Rome 12 months ago to place herself fourth on the all-time Italy list over the 400m hurdles.
The 22-year-old won gold at the European U23 championships two years ago and is one of the country’s brightest performers.
Young javelin thrower Sara Zabarino will be another Italian female shooting for the stars, having already posted a personal best this year.
Elsewhere, young shot-putter Leonardo Fabbri will be another for the home crowd to cheer on, having launched the put over the coveted 20-metre mark already this season, and is sure to receive an ovation each time he takes his place in the shot-put circle.
Now in its tenth year, the Diamond League was created by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to give greater focus and media attention to all events in the sport. To create a quick-fire yet not over-ambitious schedule, the IAAF split up the events and spread them across the season.
This means the full programme of events in a traditional athletics meeting has been divided between the men and the women. However, from 2020 the competition will have a slightly different look after changes to the set-up were agreed in March.
The IAAF has decided to stage only races up to 3,000m in distance in a bid to create a 90-minute programme designed for a television audience. The League will have 12 meetings and a single final at the end of the season, with 24 disciplines (12 male and 12 female). Further changes are anticipated before next year.
IAAF president and four-time Olympic winner middle-distance runner for Britain Sebastian Coe said: “The IAAF Diamond League is the way millions of sports fans engage with athletics on a top level every year. It is a strong circuit, but we can make it even stronger and more relevant to the world our athletes and our fans live in today.”
South Africa’s Caster Semenya has twice won gold at the Olympic Games over 800m, but faced repeated questions over her legitimacy to race. Her victory in the 2009 world championships, coupled with her physique, triggered an investigation by the IAAF. New rules were introduced, requiring hyperandrogenous athletes to take medication to lower their testosterone level for events between 400m and 1,500m.
But the court of arbitration for sport on 1 May rejected Semenya’s challenge to the ruling, which thus came into effect in time for this year’s Golden Gala.
Semenya has yet to reveal whether she will agree to take medication and compete throughout the Diamond League season in 2019. She may also opt to compete over 5,000m – having started the season with a personal best over the longer distance.
Nevertheless, the off-track distractions won’t take away from Rome’s night in the athletics spotlight. And organisers have been promoting the event across the city by laying a temporary track near its famous sights.
Adults and children were encouraged to put themselves to the test at Via dei Fori Imperiali, within sight of the Colosseum, where there was a vortex launch station positioned.
Following tradition with athletics events around the world, the Rome meeting has its own mascot – a huge red cat called Romeo.
Romeo has also been helping market the event in the run-up, and cheered on the runners during the Rome Appia Run at the end of April.
By Ed White
Tickets: The Golden Gala takes place on Thursday 6 June at Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Tickets range from €5-30 and are available for purchase on the TicketOne website. For more information visit website.
This article was published in the June 2019 edition of Wanted in Rome magazine.
Cover image: Qatar’s Abderrahman Samba won the men's 400m hurdles at the 2018
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Golden Gala returns to Rome
Stadio Olimpico, Viale dei Gladiatori, Roma, RM, Italia