“It had to be done”; a FITA history 1977-2005, part 1

As we move inexorably towards the future, it becomes increasingly important that memories of the past are not forgotten. This two-part feature is the first in a series of articles that aim to preserve the history of World Archery.

Recently I sat down in Milan, Italy with two of the most important figures in World Archery’s long history: former president Francesco Gnecchi-Ruscone and Giuseppe Cinnerella, better known as Beppe, who was the organisation’s secretary general for over two decades.

These days, World Archery is a professional federation employing eight full-time and four part-time staff in its headquarters, plus a few more at the new World Archery Excellence Centre, both in Lausanne. 

For the majority of its history in the 20th century, though, FITA – the Federation International de Tir a L’Arc – was an entirely voluntary organisation, running international events on a shoestring budget and with just a handful of part-time officers.

For many years, Milan was the home of the federation, when it was closely-associated with the Italian national governing body. 

Beppe was an archer, international judge and vice-president of FITArco before becoming secretary general of FITA in 1981. He was asked to stand for the position by his friend, Francesco, who was also an avid sportsman and president from 1977 to 1989. In that time, the pair guided the sport through some of the most difficult periods in its history.

An architect by trade, Francesco had been the head of the Italian federation for 10 years and took over the role of FITA president from a Briton; Inger K Frith. Known as Barbara, she was the first woman to head an international federation in the Olympic Movement, and had been running the position with a distinctive style for over 15 years.

The ebullient Mrs Frith’s greatest triumph was the reintroduction of archery to the Olympics in 1972, which was followed by a significant expansion of the federation.

“There are very many stories about Mrs Frith wearing different hats every day of competition, according to the colour of the target. For the four days of the double FITA round: the first day it was black, rest in white, including gloves and handbag and shoes; the second day blue, then the third day in red, and last day in yellow,” said Beppe, chuckling: “And green for the field championships.”

“Until then FITA was a very small club. I think it had about 30 member associations, of which perhaps 20 were active. The effect of becoming an Olympic sport was to immediately raise the number of member associations.”

“But Mrs Frith had been running it like a small club, partly because of her way of seeing it, partly because of her autocratic character and partly because there was no money.”

Most business was done by correspondence; in those days, letters.

“The Olympic contribution to the international federations, until the Los Angeles Games of 1984, was very limited but it permitted, at least, to cover some of the travel expenses and a few of the meetings,” explained Beppe.

Strange beginnings

The story of how Francesco became president of FITA gives much of the flavour of how things were run at the time.

“Mrs Frith announced at the congress in Interlaken in 1975 that she would retire at the end of ’77; we understood that she had health problems. Everyone assumed that she would be succeeded by her right-hand man and vice president,” said Francesco.

He was soon surprised by the British federation asking if he would stand as a candidate.

“How is it possible? Mr Honne from the Norwegian federation is there and would be the obvious candidate and I would be very glad to have him as president,” he replied.

“Then the Soviet Archery Federation proposed me as a candidate for president. I went to see Mrs Frith. I said: ‘I want to inform you that, since you announced that you will not run again in 1977, I have been asked by two member associations if I would run as candidate’.”

She became very angry, said Francesco, and replied that she was the president and how dare he come to talk to her about the succession.

“I told her that I thought it was only fair play and friendly to let you know that I had been and in case I’m not going to accept because I think that Arild Honne is the right person to succeed and I would be in favour of voting for Mr Honne.”

“This ended the conversation with a very angry Mrs Frith. The day after, Mr Honne came to me and told me that Mrs Frith had told him about our conversation and that he was not going to run because he also had health problems, and that he would be very glad to support my candidature.”

At the height of the Cold War, even archery federations were involved in strange manoeuvres.

“The Soviet Archery Association asked me to be a candidate, too, and the reason was also very peculiar. The president of the Soviet Association was a friend, Ovid Gorchakov, who was a wartime hero of the Soviet Union. He had been a partisan behind German lines and he had been parachuted into Poland and all sorts of things,” explained Francesco. “A very strange thing then happened.”

The Italian team was occasionally invited to a Spring Arrows tournament in Moscow and, in 1975, they were invited again, but on the condition that the president of the Italian federation – Francesco – accompanied them.

“The Italian federation then was a very small affair still and had very limited money. We could only afford one extra person beside the actual archers so I went to the Moscow tournament as coach, team captain, team doctor, water carrier and whatever else,” he said.

“During the tournament, I was approached by a little man in a mackintosh and a hat who asked me if I could introduce him to the press correspondent of the main Italian newspaper in Moscow.”

Francesco apologised to the man, and said he didn’t know where to find him.

“He said: ‘I have some very important information that the Western press would be interested in having.’ I said: ‘I’m sure you have but I’m very sorry, I don’t know this journalist.’ Why don’t you go to the Italian Embassy and ask them to introduce you?’”

He told Francesco that Soviet citizens were not allowed into foreign embassies, which was true. Despite further evasion, the man came back.

“He said: ‘What you could do when you get back to Milan is tell the editor of the Corriere della Sera [a main Italian newspaper] to instruct his Moscow correspondent that every Monday for two months, from 7pm to 9pm I shall be waiting for him under the Pushkin monument.”

“This, of course, struck me as too much like a bad spy film. I said: ‘Yes, of course, I’ll do that,’ and I didn’t do anything.”

Two years later at FITA Congress in Canberra, Francesco stood against the French federation president for the FITA presidency, which he won by a large majority.

Many years after that, after the Olympic Games in Moscow, the Soviet Union’s minister of sport changed. The new minister issued an invitation to the presidents of all the international federations, and Francesco and his wife travelled to Moscow. At the airport, he was greeted by a man he vaguely recognised, but thought it must have been someone from the Olympics.

The trip was postponed and moved, and Francesco and his wife spent two days in Saint Petersburg as tourists, returning to Moscow after the meeting.

“After the meeting this gentleman came again to take us back to the airport. A day later, it suddenly struck me that the man who had accompanied us had been the man whom had asked me to get in touch with the Italian newspaper. On leaving, he asked me to bring ‘Vladimir’s greetings’ to Mario Pescante, who was the secretary of the Italian Olympic Committee,” said Francesco.

“The next time I went to Rome and met Mario, I said: ‘I have to bring you the greetings of Vladimir from Moscow’. ‘Ah yes,’ he replied, ’he’s my KGB colonel’.”

During the US boycott of the Moscow Games, Pescante was appointed by the European Olympic Committee to negotiate approach with the organising committee, recalled Francesco. He had been travelling to Moscow once a week and Vladimir, the KGB colonel, was his liaison.

Handing over

Once installed as president, Francesco faced a tense handover from Inger Frith.

“I was never asked to her house. She set up the handing over operation in a Heathrow hotel where she came with the secretary and treasurer. She gave me a limited bit of information, and said: ‘All you need to know is in the congress minutes’,” he said. 

“I tried to get some more information but she wouldn’t give me any. She became very angry when I asked about the handing over of archives. She said: ‘there are no files’.” 

Prior to Francesco’s presidency, very little documentation remains.

“So, all the history of FITA is by hearsay and by congress minutes and championship results. It is very curious and I never understood why. I’m sure she had nothing to hide. She had a very positive presidency with the acceptance of archery on the Olympic Programme. She should have been very proud of handing over all the files,” said Francesco.

“I never had one single sheet of paper. I had to invent everything.”

In the second part of this article, Francesco recounts membership obstacles with China and Chinese Taipei, the development of the Grand FITA round and Beppe remembers the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.