124 Nations participating
3949 Athletes participating
Sicily has seen its fair share of occupiers over the centuries: the Romans, the Phoenicians, the Saracens, the Normans, the Angevines, the Aragonese and the Bourbons have all left their mark on the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. And for 12 days in August 1997, it was the university athletes’ turn to take over the host cities of Catania, Messina, Palermo and Trapani.
The university flame was lit by the embers of Mount Etna, the highest active volcano in Europe outside the Caucasus.
The 1997 Universiade was the first time the touristic island had hosted a sports event of such magnitude, and there were serious doubts about the ability of the Sicilians to pull it off.
Indeed, the FISU Bulletin from the period did not mince words: The local decision-making authority was described as “smothered in bureaucracy,” while “endless entreaties to leave things to Sicilian magic did not wash with the international representatives at FISU.”
In the end, however, the Sicilian Universiade was a great success. The athletes, which included 33 Olympic medal winners and 48 World Champions, were treated to world-class facilities and greeted by enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowds.
When the venues sold out, giant screens were set up in the streets to allow those without tickets to follow the action live. TV figures were unlike anything that had been seen before at a Universiade. During the semifinal of the football tournament between Italy and USA, for example, a record national audience of 1.7 million people tuned in.
“It was heart-warming to see the way the public encouraged those taking part … and this regardless of their nationality,” said FISU President Primo Nebiolo at the end of the Universiade. “The Sicilians have adopted the athletes here as if they were all their children. I have been profoundly touched; and so have the athletes. The athletes have been made welcome, housed and nourished as in no other place in the world, with athletes and directors living in four- and five-star hotels.”
The US would once again top the medals table with a haul of 61, but a surprising performance from Team Ukraine left the country in sole second in terms of gold medals won (17). Russia, Japan and hosts Italy would finish second, third and fourth, respectively, in terms of total medals won.