A 1934 video by British Pathè entitled WOMEN’S WORLD GAMES – Competitors of 19 Nations in Athletic Contests at White City starts with some shots from the opening ceremony, held in London on Thursday June 9th – although it could have taken on Saturday June 11th, because, due to a wider audience, the ceremony with the athletes marching with their national flags was done again. After the shot, dedicated to Germany, whose athletes carried both the three-striped national flag and the Nazi flag, from 0:26 secs to 0:38 secs we can see an 80 metres hurdles race taking place. According to the Youtube caption by British Pathé, it was the final, won by Ruth Engelhard: if that was the case then in 2nd place would have been Betty Taylor (Canada), and 3rd Violet Webb (UK). However in the clip the third placed athlete is wearing the Canadian maple on her shirt and why did the first three athletes stop almost at the same time before the end? Last but not least: what about the 4th athlete, dressed in a darker strip? When the race starts, she runs well, keeping pace with the first three athletes; but then she knocks down two obstacles, before giving up and quitting her race. The unlucky athlete can be identified as Trebisonda “Ondina” Valla (Bologna, 1916 – L’Aquila, 2006), the rising star of Italian female athletics at that time, and the eventual winner of the 80m hurdles gold at 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Please note that, in the very last seconds of the video, a basketball game could be seen, in the background. Courtesy of British Pathé
Daughter of Gaetano, a skilful blacksmith, and Andreana, a housewife, Ondina was born in Bologna in 1916. Since her 4 older brothers were all amateur sportsmen, she was raised in a sports-friendly environment, and as little girl she had the opportunity to play, run and jump as much as possible, although her mother didn’t appreciate all that physical activity. As Ondina also attended school during the Fascist era in the same Bologna from which came the powerful gerarca ‘Fascist leader’ Leandro Arpinati (who would later give permission to the Milanese calciatrici of Gruppo Femminile Calcistico, in 1933), she had the opportunity to practice athletics, a physical activity that, according to the regime but in contrast with Italian common opinion, was appropriate as a display of femininity.
In 1927, when she was just 11, Ondina was spotted, during a school competition, by Captain Vittorio Costa, a Bolognese athletics talent scout who already knew her elder brothers well. In 1929 Ondina attended her first athletic meeting at Stadio Littoriale (now the Stadio Dall’Ara, home of Bologna FC), the brand new sports centre commissioned by Arpinati; also there with her was Claudia Testoni (Bologna, 1915 – Cagliari, 1998), who would be not only a friend but a rival throughout Ondina’s career.
In 1930 Ondina and Claudia started to attend Regina Margherita professional high school, in Bologna: meanwhile, among 1930 and 1933, they became the new rising stars of Italian women’s athletics. Despite their young age, they both joined the National team, composed of older athletes such as Bruna Bertolini, Lydia Bongiovanni and Piera Borsani, and trained by Marina Zanetti, a former sportswomen who was at that time the only female coach and sports manager In Italy.
1933 was Ondina’s year: in September, she won almost everything she entered at International University Games, held in Turin. No matter that Ondina nor Claudia were university students: the FIDAL (Italian Federation of Athletics) rules allowed them to compete at the sporting event. In the brand new Stadio Municipale Benito Mussolini (now the Stadio Olimpico Grande Torino), she won 100m, high jump, 80m hurdles and 4x100m relay! Since the Berlin Olympics was getting closer, the Italian press finally found out the athlete who could compete with the best foreign rivals, and gain those gold medals who could raise Italy’s sports prestige. The most important step before the 1936 Summer Olympics was the IV Women’s World Games: as written in April 1933 by the Italian sports journalist Luigi Ferrario, London 1934 and Berlin 1936 would be the real test bench for the up-and-coming Italian female athletics movement.
According to the WWG rules, each National team could enter only 2 athletes for each event. The winner giving 6 points to her national team, the second 5, and so on until the sixth place, which was awarded 1 point: such a generous points system, which helped the mid-range teams such as Canada, Czechoslovakia, South Africa, Sweden, and Japan to feature in the final points table. It was the same system that allowed Italy to finish 6th at the III Women’s World Games in Prague, 1930. In an article published in mid-April 1933 by the FIDAL biweekly journal Atletica Leggera, Marina Zanetti depicted the Italian athletes as the revelation of those Games. According to Zanetti, Ondina Valla (who set the new Italian 80 ms hurdles record of 13 and 4/10sec ) and her teammates ‘behaved honorably’ in Prague. Zanetti then recalled that thanks to Vittorina Vivenza the tricolore, (Italian national flag) was hoisted in the Czechoslovakian stadium and that in 1933, after getting married, Vittorina was a happy wife and above all mother (the ultimate destiny of women, in Mussolini’s Italy); of course, she didn’t say that it was just a bronze medal, such a poor result for a National team which cannot compete with other European powers such as United Kingdom, Poland, and Germany.
On the 4th of August 1933, the Turin-based newspaper La Stampa published an entire report about the seven fanciulle battagliere ‘combative girls’ who were training at Stadio Mussolini before departing for London. The journalist wrote that Ondina Valla, Claudia Testoni, Piera Borsani, Fernanda Bullano, Maria Cosselli (or: Coselli), Bruna Bertolini, and Leandrina Bulzacchi ‘don’t like fame, they get irritated about it’. They were all aware of the high value of their sporting activity: ‘They are going to face a hard sporting contest at Women’s World Games in London, in which there’re going to keep up their homeland’s name in a foreign land’. Such warlike language was of course quite common when referring to Italian men, but not women …
High hopes were placed on the seven athletes based on the results of the Città di Torino Cup, a sporting event held in late July and meant to be a sort of selection for the London games (9-11 August 1934) and for the international meeting France vs. Italy (19 August 1934): Ondina Valla equaled the Italian 100m record (12′ 8/10), held by Giovanna Viarengo and Piera Borsani broke her own pentathlon national record. According to the La Stampa envoy, Valla, Borsani, Testoni, Bertolini and Bulzacchi where the only surviving quintet of the 1926-1930 Italian women’s athletics group, which had become smaller in the last years due to individual defections: Fernanda Bullano was one of the few discoveries of the national movement in the last years.
On the 3rd of August the CONI (Italian Olympic Comitee) newspaper Il Littoriale wrote that 8 Italian athletes were entered for the London Games: but all the other journalistic sources talked about the above mentioned 7 girls training in Turin. Then, when the final selection occurred, just 5 of them (Borsani, Bullano, Cosselli, Testoni, Valla) arrived in London by train. Amedeo D’Albora (the new head of FIDAL Women’s Department) and Marina Zanetti, who were both to attend FSFI meeting at the end of the Games, travelled with them.
On the 9th of August, the Games began, and all the Italian dreams came crashing down. Although Il Littoriale hailed Ondina Valla’s outstanding performance in the first preliminary heat, which she won, the CONI journal had to admit, in the 10 August edition, that ‘of the small Italian team, only Valla and Borsani are still playing’. Piera Borsani was struggling to maintain her 6th place in the pentathlon … All her teammates had been knocked out of the competition during the very first day! Even the Italian 4 x 100m relayteam (Cosselli, Valla, Testoni, Bullano) failed to qualify for the final, ranking 4th in their heat behind the UK, Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia … Yet Ondina still was in her event: the surviving Italian hope after such a fiasco, the country had to rely upon an 18-years old girl …
During a 1973 interview by weekly magazine Gente, Ondina said that her worst memory from her entire career was her 1934 performance in London. After her brilliant result in the first heat,
I went hopefully on the track for my semi-final race. Before it, a [manager] called me aside, telling me that only the first two athletes would progress to the final. I reassured him, without boasting: I felt really healthy and great. Nevertheless, unlucky, we jumped the gun, and I unfortunately remained on the starting blocks. When I realized that that start was clean, I had already lost precious time. I started to run anyway, and at the third obstacle I was in third, but I had no hope of catching the first two runners. So I suddenly stopped, hopeless, and quit the race. I wasn’t interested in gaining a honorable position
Ondina’s testimony matched the British Pathé’s video, except for one element: the Italian runner stopped, not when she realized she was in third place, but after knocking down a hurdle for the second time (!). Ondina didn’t say who the manager was, but since it’s unlikely that she could understand English (at that time French was the most popular foreign language in Italian schools), we can arguably identify him as the powerful D’Albora. Just like a lot of Fascist-era sports manager, D’Albora didn’t stop after 1945: in 1958 he was elected to the Italian Parliament, and he joined the mixed parliamentary group composed of Movimento Sociale Italiano (neo-fascist) and Partito Nazionale Monarchico (monarchic) Senators. Since he didn’t die until 1980, no surprise that in her 1973 interview the old Ondina was still reluctant to mention him …
Sadly, the 80m hurdles semi-final wasn’t the only moment in which Ondina paid for someone else’s mistake. As written by Italian sports historian Gustavo Pallicca, Valla was eliminated during the heats of high jump because, due to a delay in reaching the athletic field, she couldn’t conduct a proper warm-up.
After the above mentioned article published on the 10 August, Il Littoriale stopped informing their readers about the happenings in London, since it was quite embarrassing for the Fascist regime. On 12 August, Milan-based newspaper Il Corriere della Sera published a sort of analysis of the Italian team in the games that finished the day before in London:
The Italian athletes, who were praised for the behavior, uniform, and organization in such an high-level environment, did everything they could to look the best they could. It seemed that the best among them was Borsani, ranked 7th in the pentathlon event with 222 points. She also finished a flattering 8th in the javelin event, with 32,98m. During long jump heats, Testoni broke her own Italian record, leaping 5,195m. Nevertheless, she wasn’t able to qualify for the final. Valla, on which all the hopes for a final race rested, had no luck. After winning the heat with such a good time of 12s, during the semi-final, she hit the last hurdle and so she had to drop out the race. Nevertheless, the presence of the young Italian athletes at WWC was appreciated, since it was a remarkable sporting and managerial effort.
This long quotation it’s a very interesting example of how the Italian sporting press misrepresented this fiasco (Italy gaining zero points!) using the same verbal instrument of political propaganda: the ‘flattering’ 8th place, the stress on Testoni’s new national record (she was praised also by the Secretary of National Fascist Party Achille Starace himself, thanks to a personal telegram sent at the end of August to the Bolognese athlete) more than her failure in qualifying for the final (an implicit verdict of the low-level of Italian women’s athletics movement, in comparison with other countries), Valla’s bad luck, the praise for Italian girls uniform (!), the awkward full-throated advocacy on the FIDAL management … Il Corriere della Sera article ended by saying – that evening the closing banquet would place, and the next morning the FSFI Congress would start, joined by the Italian delegation. It was time, for the unlucky Italian athletes, to pass the baton to their managers …
The 1934 London WWC final banquet menu. As usual, such ephemeral objects can be very useful for historical research, because they throw a little light on the daily life of women’s athletes during such international competitions. The most interesting element lies not in the first page, where Alice Milliat is mentioned and the whole list of National teams – Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Palestine, Poland, Rhodesia, South Africa, Sweden, USA, Yugoslavia, but rather on the last page , where a whole blank space was left for autographs. Was it maybe intended as a kind of stimulus for these young women, perhaps not accustomed to such public events with so many foreigners, to ‘break the ice’ by asking for autographs and thus starting a conversation. Please note the last autographs, written in Japanese fonts.
Article © Marco Giani
For more on the Italian women’s athletic movement in 1934, see
For more information on the Italian team at 1934 Women’s World Games in London, see
Further on Marina Zanetti can be seen here
For more about Leandro Arpinati and Italian sports movement, see
For images related to the 1934 London Women’s World Games, see
For images related to the 1930 Prague Women’s World games, see