MILAN (Reuters) - The only war that Airman Andrew Howe and tax police officer Antonietta Di Martino plan to wage next month is on the sports field.
The pair, world silver medalists in long jump and high jump respectively, are among 170 athletes from the armed forces who will represent Italy at the Beijing Olympics.
Italy’s military contingent, who make up about half the Olympic team, are on a mission for medals.
“Being a soldier is part of my life. Yes, we don’t go to war but the Olympic Games are our mission,” Howe, who is attached to the Air Force, told Reuters during a military ceremony in Rome this month.
The American-born athlete, who won the world silver medal with a personal-best jump of 8.47 meters in Osaka last year, recently experienced his first flight on a C-130 aircraft.
His sporting prowess means the 23-year-old is exempted from taking part in military operations and Howe said he did not yet know if he would go on serving in the Air Force after retiring from sport.
High jumper Di Martino cherishes the thought of wearing a uniform and chasing drug traffickers and tax evaders.
“I have always loved to be in the Fiamme Gialle, the tax police corps,” the 30-year-old told Reuters after competing at an athletics meeting in Milan this month.
“In normal life I‘m braver than on the sports field,” the usually shy athlete, who holds the Italian national women’s high jump record of 2.03 meters, said with a smile.
Hundreds of young men and women take a public examination every year to enrol in Italy’s armed forces, escaping uncertainty and unemployment.
For talented athletes, the mix of discipline, good training facilities and organization provided by the services produces ideal conditions to excel at sport and has helped Italy to conquer podiums and honors.
“Behind all this there is a choice. Firstly, the choice of being an athlete, secondly the choice of practicing sport serenely, looking to the future,” the Italian Air Force’s Chief of Staff, General Daniele Tei, told Reuters.
With its strong military presence, Italian sport is not an isolated case. Russia has a long tradition of army athletes, dating back to Soviet days, while many of Germany’s Olympic competitors are on military payrolls.
Ethiopia’s Abebe Bikila, who became the first black African to win the Olympic marathon when he ran barefoot through Rome in 1960, was a member of the Emperor’s Imperial Bodyguard.
The number of Italian military athletes attending the Summer Games has steadily increased in recent years, rising to a record high of 177 in Athens, where they racked up more than half of Italy’s medal tally.
“We love to be in the Air Force. We are willing to continue to be part of this great family,” rhythmic gymnast Elisa Santoni said, proud of the silver medal won with her team mates in Greece.
“Discipline is part of our life. All of us share the same values,” Larissa Nevierov, the only Italian woman in the Laser Radial sailing discipline, said during the Air Force ceremony in Rome.
“A soldier-athlete can’t forget he is a soldier,” Lieutenant Colonel Vincenzo Parrinello, chief of the tax police sports corps, told Reuters. “He must respect rules.”
His Fiamme Gialle group will send 41 athletes to Beijing, the highest number compared to other groups from the forces. The Air Force comes second with 25, followed by the Carabinieri para-military police and the army.
Among them are many hopeful champions such as runner Elisa Cusma (army), fencer Valentina Vezzali (police) who has won four golds at previous Games, and Ivano Brugnetti from Fiamme Gialle, who captured gold in the 20-km walk in Athens.
Marco Galiazzo, who snatched a surprise win in the men’s individual archery in Athens, has joined the Air Force since the 2004 Games.
One obligation on the athlete-soldiers is to refrain from commenting on politically sensitive issues in Beijing, such as China’s human rights record.
Armed Forces officials have even prepared a recommended answer for individual athletes, in case they are asked an awkward question, telling them to say: “I don’t dispute the importance of talking about human rights but the Olympic Games are a sports event and this is how it has to be.”
Editing by Clare Fallon