Mike Rowbottom

It’s funny. I could have sworn Gianmarco Tamberi won the men’s high jump competition at the 2016 IAAF Diamond League meeting in Rome.

But – having checked – I note that a best of 2.30 metres meant the exuberant Italian finished third behind Ukraine’s Bohdan Bondarenko, who won with 2.33m, and Britain’s Robbie Grabarz, who also cleared 2.30m but placed second on countback.

No offence meant to two fine athletes here, but, having witnessed the drama at first hand, the only thing I really remember about that competition was Tamberi. And the noise of the most part of 37,727 spectators in the Olympic Stadium roaring their appreciation of him.

Tamberi is competing in that same stadium tonight for the first time since those heady, pre-Rio 2016 days, when he was clearly accelerating towards Olympic glory of some kind. Once again, Olympics glimmer in the distance, although a little further so right now. If there is any justice in the sporting world, he will get there and find some of the glory that traumatic injury denied him less than six weeks after that heady Roman night.

Gianmarco Tamberi, his ankle encased in plaster, watches the men's high jump qualifying competition at the Rio 2016 Games ©Getty Images
Gianmarco Tamberi, his ankle encased in plaster, watches the men's high jump qualifying competition at the Rio 2016 Games ©Getty Images

The night of his competition at the 2016 Monaco Grand Prix contained all the drama that Tamberi always brings to the party – and something extra.

All the essential elements of his competition were there – the dark beard shaven clean on the right side of his face, the crowd involvement and the thrilling core of achievement. Exactly three weeks before the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics, he set an Italian record of 2.39m – and, of course, charged on for higher things.

His attempt at 2.41m ended with him missing the landing mat and doing grievous harm to his ankle, and he was carried from the arena on a stretcher.

Doggedly, Tamberi attended the Rio Games, his leg encased in plaster. There he saw the Olympic gold won with a clearance of 2.37m.

As chance would have it, I travelled back to Rome on the same plane as the Italian team. Tamberi wore the same dark blue tracksuit as his returning compatriots, but there was a mournful air about him despite his best efforts.

He may have returned to Rome, but the way back to his previous position in high jumping took many more months. Never had he more needed the support of his father and coach, Marco, who had set the Italian indoor high jump record at 2.28m in 1983.

Watching him strive and fail at heights he would previously have flown over was painful. Knowing all that exuberance had nowhere to go.

The day before his competition in Rome, I took my turn to interview him at the meeting hotel. He was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt, black leggings and deep red shoes. He was world indoor champion. He was a sensation. And he was loving it.

Gianmarco Tamberi, defending his European title in Berlin last summer, finished fourth in a season's best of 2.28 metres ©Getty Images
Gianmarco Tamberi, defending his European title in Berlin last summer, finished fourth in a season's best of 2.28 metres ©Getty Images

Italy’s 1980 Olympic high jump champion Sara Simeoni once described Tamberi’s father as being ‘un cavallo pazzo, come il figlio’ – a crazy horse, like his son.”

The son recalled this comment with a grin.

“When I talk with some athletes that competed against my father at that time, they say, yes, he was really crazy, like enjoying the track a lot, not like I am doing but almost,” he said.

“Because my kind of crazy, if you want to call it that, is to have fun and to entertain the spectators and to enjoy, because I come from other sports like basketball where there is like a different feeling for entertainment.”

Earlier this year, at Emirates Arena in Glasgow that had been built next to Celtic Football Club's ground ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Tamberi was finally able to run the full gamut of his emotions as performance matched aspiration.

"Gimbo is back" - Tamberi celebrates winning gold at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Glasgow three months ago ©Getty Images

In becoming European Athletics indoor champion, with a best of 2.32m, he won the golden twin to the outdoor medal he had earned in Amsterdam in the summer of 2016.

It being Tamberi, the competition was as much about emotion as height. And that emotion reached the heights as the man nicknamed Gimbo, Italian flag painted on his left shoulder, worked the crowd, now rousing them with hands clapping over his head, now shushing them with a finger to his mouth, now performing a backflip in the pit as the bar remained in situ.

“Its something amazing,” he said. “It's something I was expecting for too long. I want to tell everyone what happened over the past two years and how serious my injury was. Yes, Gimbo is back – and only I and a couple of people know what it means.

“I wanted it so much. I told myself 'Don't give up. Don't ruin this moment because it's your moment'. I knew I could come back one day. Now I want to enjoy this moment.”

One assumes he did so. But now, happily, there are other such moments ahead of him. His return to Rome – in a competitive rather than merely physical sense – will be something to be relished.

"This is one of my favourite competitions," he told the IAAF on the eve of competition. "I'm looking forward to it and I know that they are expecting something from me. I'm in good shape, so I'm ready.

"People think I'm running the show, but the crowd is there and they are having fun. They make the show. We make the show together. That's the secret to my way of competing. I want everyone to enjoy the competition and I want everyone to participate in it. When I jump, I feel like everybody is jumping together."

There will be others for the home crowd to follow tonight, of course. In the stadium where Livio Berutti, in trademark dark glasses and white socks, had come of age with an astounding 200m win at the 1960 Olympics, there is always going to be a special warmth for an Italian sprinter. And 21-year-old Filippo Tortu, the first Italian to beat 10 seconds for the 100m, will be keenly watched as he takes on his two awesome United States contemporaries Noah Lyles and Michael Norman.

But in emotional terms, Gianmarco Tamberi is likely to be at the centre of things.