Rome Welcomes the Swimming World

By Peter Mayer

Rome, July 22 (DPA): Think of a diva in Rome and one image likely to spring to mind is that of a sultry Anita Ekberg, taking a dip in the Trevi Fountain in Federico Fellini's classic film, La Dolce Vita. But not this summer.

The Italian capital is hosting the 2009 FINA World Swimming Championships, and the shape on show, peering from posters and emblazoned on t-shirts, is not that of a legendary screen siren.

Instead, meet "Diva 09," the Championships mascot - a smiling frog, complete with bathing cap and swimming goggles.

With more than 2,500 athletes from over 180 nations scheduled to participate, work has been underway for months to prepare the competition facilities and to spruce up the city for the event.

The Championships programme also includes the discipline of Open Water Swimming with races taking place in the waters of Tyrrhenian Sea off the beach of Ostia, a sea-side suburb situated some 30 kilometres South-East of Rome.

But the swimming, diving, synchronised swimming and water polo contests are all held at the main Championships venue, the Foro Italico sports complex.

Situated not far from Rome's historic centre, the Foro Italico lies on the left bank of the River Tiber, and is a relatively short, Vespa-scooter ride away from Vatican City and St Peter's Basilica.

In some ways it could be said that in Rome, swimming is coming home.

Centuries ago the Ancient Romans first built swimming pools, mostly as a respite from the city's torrid months, but also to hold competitive races.

And it was fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, fashioning himself as the leader of a sort of modern-day Roman Empire, who encouraged Italians to take up sports as an activity through which they could do their country proud.

Built on the orders of Il Duce in the 1930s, the Foro Italico, (Italian Forum) - but once known as the Foro Mussolini - features at its centrepiece, the spectacular Stadium of Marbles.

The structure is guarded by dozens of towering white statues, carved from Carrara marble and portraying athletes from various sports codes.

But during the Championships, attention will focus on the Foro's aquatic facilities including three main swimming pool arenas, one with a seating capacity of 13,000.

It is here where records could be broken, as the likes of Olympic multi-gold medallist Michael Phelps and Italian swimming's poster-girl, Federica Pellegrini, take to the water.

With almost half a million spectators expected to attend the Championships, organizers have also created an entertainment area adjoining the Foro Italico, the so-called Market District and Hospitality Village.

The venue, spread over an area of more than 12,000 square metres, opens its gates throughout the duration of the Championships.

Here visitors can indulge in the "gourmet paradise," of the Made in Italy Food Court stall, as the official Championships brochure puts it. Another promised attraction is the Spumanteria, or sparkling wine bar.

Every night from 11.30 pm the entire Village area " becomes the most exclusive discotheque with the top DJs in town," the brochure says.

The current festive climate appears very remote from some of the acrimony that festered in the months ahead of the Championships.

Initial plans to hold the competition in a newly built Sports City complex - designed by Spanish celebrity architect Santiago Calatrava - in the less central Tor Vergata district, were eventually scrapped in the wake of spiralling costs and municipal zoning disputes.

The switch in venue raised fears that facilities would not be ready in time, leaving organizers and Italian authorities high and dry with embarrassment.

But days before the opening ceremony, Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno expressed his conviction that with everything in place the event would be a great success and that visitors would remain "enchanted by the city."

"We did everything at the right time, even if it was a bit of a chase in the end, but this is typical of us Italians," the Mayor said.


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