For most of Italy, sport begins and ends with il calcio. But in Cortina d’Ampezzo, fans get their kicks from a different game.
The Stadio Olimpico ice arena is the focus of Cortina’s sporting life. Built in the 1950s to host the ’56 Winter Olympics, the venerable wooden stands are steeped in history. Sixty years on, the atmosphere is unique – the seats are racked in steep tiers, reminiscent of that other great Italian sporting cathedral, the San Siro. It might not have the same epic scale as the Milan stadium, but it more than makes up for that with its unique character.
Modernization has had an impact – for SG Cortina, the local hockey team, to remain in Serie A, a covered arena was needed. In 1956 the ice was open air: only the spectator areas were under cover. Happily, the new roof, built from 2007-09, was sensitively done. A vast wall of glass encloses the front of the arena, maintaining a view of the Olympic torch and the Alpine skyline beyond. The blue-painted steel supports for the roof itself are elegantly functional. Many of the 2,500 seats are on the original benches, while the metal floor helps fans literally kick up a storm of applause for their team.
Players rate it as a special place to come. During a qualification tournament for the 2018 Olympics the arena drew rave reviews. Great Britain’s defenceman Ben O’Connor said: “It’s always special to play for GB but coming here is something else. You get all this history, this great venue, it just makes it even more special.”
Team-mate Josh Batch was learning more about the history of Cortina after joining the GB party – and he also enjoyed the contrast between the more modern but less characterful arenas he plays in back home.
“It’s definitely a great rink,” Batch said. “There’s more of a retro feel than a lot of the rinks in the UK but it’s really cool with all the wooden bleachers and stuff. The surrounding area’s beautiful as well.”
The locals also love it – and love their history. During the Olympic Qualifiers the da Rin brothers, Gianfranco and Alfredo, were guests of honour. The pair were born in the town in the 1930s and became stalwart members of team Italy and SG Cortina. Franco, the elder, played in that 1956 Olympic tournament; he was joined by his younger brother in Innsbruck for the 1964 edition.
Links to the national team continue today. Italy’s Alexander Gellert plays for Cortina and his vital goal in Italy’s tournament-deciding win over the British drew the loudest cheers of the competition.
“I’m lucky to get the chance to play here in such a great building,” he said after that game. “And it means a lot for Cortina to host an international competition again. A lot of people still remember the Olympics in 1956 and this is a town that loves hockey. They’ve had a top level club here for a long time, but an international tournament is a different level again.”