Monday, 22 March 2010

Rome: one run is not enough

To Rome to run the marathon, mark the equinox and see some of those sights that I already know so well from the history, art and politics books. The city stinks of dog shit, there’s more graffiti than you can shake a can at and the Aventine, where the urban poor have congregated since antiquity, has a third world-like population of rough sleepers. The posters for the end-of-month regional elections here declare that ‘real communists don’t vote for the Partito Democratico’, the main, centre-left opposition to Berlusconi.

But Rome is everything you could ever want of the eternal city. It’s like walking around the stage set of European history, from the platform on which Julius Caesar’s body was cremated 2,064 years and one week ago today to Mussolini’s Via dei Fori Imperiali near the Colosseum, where the marathon began and finished.

The whole 26.2-mile (or 46.165-kilometre) route is as much like a massive tourist trail as a competitive road race. We even take in the narrow cobbled streets past the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps, as well as St Peter’s Square on the day that the Pope stands accused of turning a blind eye to child abuse. At one point a man running in front of me stops, looks around and starts taking photos. Another runner asks someone in the crowd to take a picture of her posing in front of a statue. It’s worth the entry fee just to experience the streets of Rome reclaimed by human feet from usually ever present motor car

This year’s Rome marathon was dedicated to Abebe Bikila, the two-time Olympic marathon gold medallist from Ethiopia who ran – and won – the 1960 race here barefoot. It was a deliberately strong anti-racist statement from the marathon organisers in a city where many of those rough sleepers on the Aventine are African refugees and asylum seekers who have been on the receiving end of a resurgence in far-right political sympathies over the past few years.

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