- Associated Press - Monday, February 1, 2016

CORTINA D’AMPEZZO, Italy (AP) - When Italian Premier Matteo Renzi flew to New York to witness the all-Italian U.S. Open final between Flavia Pennetta and Roberta Vinci in September, it was a source of controversy at home.

Critics decried the use of a government plane for a personal trip, while supporters trumpeted his celebration of two Italian athletes on a world stage.

One thing they could agree on is the passion that Renzi has for sport, as Italian Olympic Committee president Giovanni Malago attests.

“He’s a die-hard fan,” Malago said in a recent interview with The Associated Press as he presided over the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Winter Games in Cortina. “He knows everything.”

“Whenever an Italian wins, he calls me, he writes me e-mails, he writes on WhatsApp,” Malago added. “He always wants to have the athlete’s number to call and offer congratulations. He even follows sports that you’ve never heard of.”

Formerly a soccer referee, Renzi’s affinity for sports is also evidenced on the premier’s Twitter account, which he often uses to express support for his beloved Fiorentina team.

Renzi’s flag-waving is lending strong support to Rome’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics - which would be the first games in the Italian capital since the successful 1960 Games remembered for exploits by Cassius Clay, Wilma Rudolph and Abebe Bikila.

“He’s putting his heart and passion into this,” Malago said days after Renzi visited with International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach to promote the candidacy.

The IOC will select the 2024 host city next year. Los Angeles, Paris and Budapest, Hungary, are the other bidders.

The 41-year-old Renzi explained to Bach that while his term ends in 2018, he hopes to be re-elected and serve until 2023 - a year before the 2024 Games.

“At that point one of my dreams is to spend the two most glorious weeks of my life in Rome with my entire family at the Olympics as an ordinary citizen,” Renzi said. “I want to pay for my tickets and simply enjoy the spectacle.”

Together with former Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo, who is in charge of Rome’s bid committee, Renzi and Malago - who was elected CONI president in 2013 after heading the organizing committee for the swimming world championships in Rome in 2009 - form the backbone of the candidacy.

“Our bid is really thread together by sport, from top to bottom,” Malago said. “An Olympic competition is made up of a ton of factors. It’s a game in which individuals can be key but there’s got to be teamwork involved.

“We’re taking all the correct steps,” the 56-year-old Malago added. “The institutional endorsements represent a fundamental element for the bid.”

While critics question whether Rome is ready after then-premier Mario Monti declined to provide financial backing for a 2020 bid just a few years ago, the candidacy is promoting a cost-conscious plan relying on many of the same venues used in 1960 - like the Foro Italico complex featuring the athletics stadium plus aquatics and tennis arenas.

Montezemolo has announced a bid budget of 24.9 million euros ($27 million) - significantly less than what main rivals Paris and Los Angeles are planning to spend.

Still, the small, left-wing movement Radicali Italiani is calling for a public referendum on the bid, citing spiraling costs of recent games.

But both Montezemolo and Malago have pointed to the nearly unanimous vote in favor of the candidacy by Rome’s city council last year.

“The Romans have already voted,” Malago said. “If after June (when a new mayor will be elected) there are some doubts and someone wants to put it up for discussion again, that’s more than welcome. But I certainly can’t be the one to do that.”

An IPSOS poll promoted by the bid committee recently found that three out of four Italians are in favor of the candidacy, out of 2,200 people surveyed.

On a national scale, 77 percent support the bid, while that goes down to 66 percent of the 800 of those surveyed who live in Rome.

“We’ll repeat the poll in upcoming months,” Malago said. “We’re not in the least bit worried.”


Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/asdampf

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