For Leonardo Fabbri, the horizon is suddenly glinting with the prospect of a golden shot at a spot in the annals of Italian athletics history following his major breakthrough at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
Having scraped into the shot final as the last of the 12 qualifiers, making the cut by just six centimetres, the towering Tuscan proceeded to seize the hand of opportunity with one mighty third round effort in what was his first global final.
A non-qualifier at the 2019 World Championships (13th), the 2021 Olympic Games (14th) and the 2022 World Championships (22nd), Fabbri propelled himself from ninth-place to second with a throw of 22.34m – a lifetime best by 35 centimetres.
In doing so, the 26-year-old did more than enough to take the silver medal behind the formidable Ryan Crouser, whose stunning final round 23.51m was just six centimetres shy of the world record he threw on home soil in Los Angeles in May.
Having started the day as the second-string Italian – behind 2023 European indoor champion Zane Weir, who went on to finish a disappointing eleventh – Fabbri found himself among the all-time big shots of the track and field Azzurri.
Following in Andrei's giant footsteps
It was only Italy’s second medal in the men’s shot put in the 40-year history of the World Championships, after the silver won by Alessandro Andrei behind Switzerland’s Werner Gunthor in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome in 1987.
“It’s a dream come true for me,” said Fabbri. “Alessandro Andrei came from my home city, Florence. That makes this achievement even more special. I grew up watching videos of him. He’s always been my role model.”
Whether the latest Florentine colossus by the name of Leonardo can emulate Andrei by becoming an Olympic champion and world record-breaker remains to be seen.
On the Olympic front, Crouser would need to suffer a dramatic dip in form – or something more damaging than the blood clotting of the legs that afflicted him in the build-up to Budapest – for the gold to be a realistic prospect for Fabbri, or any other thrower, in Paris next August.
However, gold on the European front might be a different matter.
Fabbri’s silver medal winning throw in Budapest was the best by a European for 35 years: since Ulf Timmermann became the first man in history to breach the 23 metre-mark. The East German threw 23.06m at Khania in Crete in May 1988, eclipsing the world record figures of 22.91m set by Andrei in Viareggio in August 1987.
Andrei had broken the previous world record three times that night but when it came to European competition he never managed to get on the podium outdoors - though he did claim European indoor bronze in Gothenburg in 1984, the year he struck Olympic gold in Los Angeles.
No Italian has ever won the European outdoor men’s shot title. In fact, in the 89-year history of the European Athletics Championships, only one male Italian shot putter has ever made the podium: Angiolo Profeti, who finished runner-up to Iceland’s Gunnar Huseby in Brussels in 1950.
It just so happens, of course, that the 2024 edition of a competition that started in Turin in 1934 will be held on Italian ground in Rome from 7-12 June – at the Stadio Olimpico where Andrei won his World Championships silver in 1987, and where the European Athletics Championships were last held in 1974.
Half-a-century after Pietro Mennea provided the sole home success, the pencil-slim sprinter floating to victory in the 200m, Fabbri will have the chance to graduate to gold standard in the celebrated Roman sporting amphitheatre.
It promises to be a championship to savour for the host nation, with Gianmarco Tamberi (high jump), Marcell Jacobs (100m) and Yemaneberhan Crippa (10,000m) all defending titles they won in Munich in 2022.
An all-Italian battle for shot put gold?
The men’s shot put could be the highlight for Italy, with Fabbri up against his training partner Weir, who bounced back from his Budapest disappointment by becoming the third Italian over the 22 metre-mark, eclipsing Fabbri’s European lead with 22.44m in Padova on 3 September.
Born and raised in Durban, Weir will not be the first South African-Italian to enter a European Championships in Rome as a medal contender.
Marcello Fiasconaro lined up for the 800m final in 1974 as the world record-holder but was, sadly, carrying an Achilles tendon injury that caught up with him after a bold do-or-die effort from the front. The tall, long-haired former rugby player was eight metres clear after blasting through halfway in 50.1 but faded to sixth as the willowy Yugoslav Luciano Susanj kicked to a decisive victory ahead of the 18-year-old Briton Steve Ovett.
In the meantime, Fabbri can reflect with satisfaction on having finally started to fulfill the youthful promise that earned him bronze at the European Youth Olympic Festival ten years ago.
He was runner-up at the European Athletics U23 Championships in Gavle in 2019 and also at the European Athletics Team Championships in Silesia in 2021, but progress at senior international championship level had been slow until the third round explosion in Budapest – and a subsequent foul that nudged the 23 metre-line, hinting at the possibility of much more to come.
“Since I started doing athletics as a child, watching the major championships on TV with my parents, I have always dreamed of getting on the podium in the Azzurri vest,” said Fabbri, whose father, Fabio, was a decent sprinter with a 10.9 PB for 100m.
“I found the strength in my head because I knew I could do it. I had some problems with the circle in the morning qualifying but in the final in the evening I felt total confidence.
“I picked up the 7.26kg shot and it looked like a tennis ball. I didn’t think about second place but I wanted to throw 22m. That was my goal.
“For me, it was so important to break the 22m barrier. That, and the silver medal, opens up new doors for me.
“I dedicate my medal to my coach, Paolo Dal Soglio. He has been with me all of the way, through the missed opportunities of being just short of making world and Olympic finals. I owe everything to Paolo. We have a very close relationship. He has helped me to grow.”
Dal Soglio was no mean shot putter himself. He placed fourth in the Olympic final in Atlanta in 1996 and fifth at the World Indoor Championships in Lisbon in 2001. He also won a European title - indoors - in Stockholm in 1996.
Outdoors, his best performance at a European Athletics Championships was fifth in Budapest in 1998.
Nobody would be happier if his emerging apprentice made it to top spot in the men’s shot at the Stadio Olimpico next June.
Simon Turnbull for European Athletics