Mike Rowbottom ©ITG

One of the most exciting things about watching Italian track and field athletes is the excitement they generate among their own supporters.

For instance, even via the relatively stilted media conduits of the time, you could feel the excitement reverberating around Marcello Fiasconaro during his brief but star-bursting career over 400 and 800 metres in the early 1970s.

Born in South Africa, but with an Italian father, Fiasconaro only switched from rugby to athletics at the age of 20, and within a couple of years he won 400m silver, behind Britain's own rapidly rising talent of David Jenkins, at the 1971 European Championships in Helsinki.

The following year he set a 400m world indoor record of 46.1 seconds.

And on June 27, 1973, having moved up to 800m, he became the first man to run the distance in under 1min 44sec. 

His world record of 1:43.7 - still the Italian record - was beaten by Cuba's Alberto Juantorena in winning the Olympic title at the 1976 Montreal Games.

Italy's Pietro Mennea running at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where he won gold over 200m ©Getty Images
Italy's Pietro Mennea running at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where he won gold over 200m ©Getty Images  

Sadly, injuries had already put paid to the meteoric career of Italy's reclaimed South African by the time those Games came around. 

But the esteem in which Fiasconaro is held in Italian sporting circles was evidenced in 2009 when he was awarded the Cavaliere Ordine al Merito della Republica Italiana, described as "the highest honour that can be bestowed upon an Italian civilian".

There was a similar buzz, always, around another Italian world record-breaker whose sprinting career began around the same time as Fiasconaro's, but lasted far longer - Pietro Mennea.

Mennea, who died aged 60 in 2013, set his world record over 200m on September 12, 1979, running in the World University Games at the high altitude Mexico Olympic track. That record stood for 17 years until Michael Johnson of the United States beat it at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic trials.

A year later Mennea was Olympic 200m champion at the 1980 Moscow Games, beating Britain's Allan Wells by 0.02sec with a late flourish.

Fiasconaro may have been meteoric, but Mennea has an eternal place in the firmament. On January 31 this year, he had an asteroid named after him. It's Asteroid 73891 Pietromennea if you are ever passing…

Mennea still holds the Italian 100m record as well - but his 1979 time of 10.01 came close to being eclipsed by a compatriot last night as Filippo Tortu, still only 19, lowered his personal best of 10.15 - set on the same track last year - to 10.09 in the heats. He then missed Mennea's mark by two hundredths in winning the final at the International Meeting of Savona in 10.03.

The Italian Cup brimmed over on the night, as Tortu was followed home by 23-year-old fellow countryman Marcell Jacobs in 10.08.

Despite his youth, Tortu - whose grandfather Giacomo and father Salvino were both sprinters - has already had a dramatic career.

At the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing he qualified in his 200m heat by finishing second in a personal best of 21.38, but then took a calamitous tumble after the line and broke the radius and ulna bones in each forearm.

Nineteen-year-old Filippo Tortu, pictured left at last year's IAAF World Championships in London, has moved to within 0.02 seconds of Pietro Mennea's 1979 Italian 100m record - and there is plenty more to come ©Getty Images  ,
Nineteen-year-old Filippo Tortu, pictured left at last year's IAAF World Championships in London, has moved to within 0.02 seconds of Pietro Mennea's 1979 Italian 100m record - and there is plenty more to come ©Getty Images ,

So much for his Youth Olympic aspirations. And two years later his Olympic ambitions narrowly failed to transpire as he missed the 100m qualifying mark for the Rio 2016 Games by 0.03sec, despite setting a personal best of 10.19 at the European Athletics Championships in Amsterdam.

Tortu finished the year with a flourish, however, as he took silver later that summer in the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Under-20 Championships in Bydgoszcz behind the dominant figure of Noah Lyles of the US.

The young man from Milan was proceeding with caution in Poland under the guidance of his father and coach, concentrating on the shorter sprint.

"I love the 200m, the technique, the curve," he told the IAAF. "But I'm too thin for the event. 

"The speed we have coming off the curve is so high."

Two years on the boy is turning into the man, the strength is there, and the results are already arriving over the longer sprint. He was a 200m semi-finalist at last year's IAAF World Championships in London.

Tortu has talent. He also has a quiet charm, as I witnessed myself in Monaco last November as he was among a small group of athletes meeting a party of local students on the eve of the IAAF Athlete of the Year Awards.

His self-deprecating humour, in clear and near perfect English, made a big impression on the 24 assembled fellow teenagers from Monaco's College Charles III.

Tortu, who had just started a university course in Rome studying economics and management, described his early trauma at the Youth Olympics without a smidge of self pity before admitting: "I'm a very bad starter. It's really difficult for me when I see the other guys in front of me and I want to arrive at the finish before them."

That didn't prevent him offering the visiting students some impromptu starting lessons a little later, on blocks set up on the walkway above Larvotto Beach.

Twenty-year-old Noah Lyles of the United States, pictured after winning this month's opening 200m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting at Doha in a personal best of 19.83sec, is a formidable opponent for Tortu, but the Italian has now run faster than him over 100m ©Getty Images
Twenty-year-old Noah Lyles of the United States, pictured after winning this month's opening 200m at the IAAF Diamond League meeting at Doha in a personal best of 19.83sec, is a formidable opponent for Tortu, but the Italian has now run faster than him over 100m ©Getty Images

Global reality check - in the IAAF Diamond League meeting at Eugene that will run tomorrow and on Saturday (May 26) at the hallowed Hayward Field track, 20-year-old Lyles, who has never lost a Diamond League 200m race and holds the overall title having won in the Brussels final last year, will face 22-year-old compatriot Christian Coleman, the world 100m silver medallist and world indoor 60m champion and world record holder.

Lyles ran a personal best of 19.83 in winning the IAAF Diamond League 200m in Doha earlier this month. This is an area currently beyond Tortu's scope, given the Italian's 200m best of 20.34. But Lyles' legal personal best over 100m is only 10.14.

In the short term, for Tortu - and Jacobs - this year's European Athletics Championships in Berlin, part of a new, broad, multi-sport European Championships being co-hosted by Glasgow, is going to be potentially huge, both for themselves and their home nation.

And it is also very exciting as a marker to more stellar sprinting contests two years down the line at the Tokyo 2020 Games. 

A nation is starting to expect...