David Owen ©ITG

Lines are a big deal in sport. Ask any English or West German football fan who watched the 1966 World Cup final.

So the 60th anniversary of an innovation that used more than 1,500 buoys and 26.5 kilometres of supporting cables to accurately delineate the lanes of an Olympic rowing – and canoeing – course for the first time is worth acknowledging.

All the more so as the system has remained unchanged in its essentials ever since, and will be pressed into service once again in Tokyo, barring cancellation, albeit with fibre replacing all those lengths of metal cable at what is a salt-water venue.

The Albano system – named after the lake in the crater of an old volcano outside Rome where it was first deployed – was the brainchild of Italian architect Maurizio Clerici and Mario Peccia, the engineer he was working with on the rowing venue for the 1960 Olympics.

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case a new way of marking out the course was required because of the particular characteristics of the body of water chosen for that Olympic regatta.

In short, it was very deep – up to 170 metres, even close inshore. This meant that the sort of lane and distance markings that were the norm in the 1950s, often supported by floating platforms held in place essentially by anchors, simply were not feasible.

As the two men, Clerici and Peccia, pondered what to do, it is hard to imagine that Clerici's experiences four years earlier at the Melbourne 1956 Olympics did not influence their thinking.

According to the official report, "it was unfortunate that during the repechages on 24th November, after a start had been made under ideal conditions, the sudden change of wind made the course very difficult and necessitated postponement of the remaining events to the next morning".

Rowing's lane system has stood the test of time ©Getty Images
Rowing's lane system has stood the test of time ©Getty Images

Contemporary press reports paint a rather more dramatic picture. The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail spoke of "a 45-mile-an-hour wind which blew a refreshment tent down", while another account says that "squalls blew timber and patches of weed across the course".

According to the Belfast News-Letter, the decision to postpone racing was taken "after the Mexican sculler, Roesler Froemberg, had capsized half way down the 2,000m course".

"He had to be picked out of the choppy water by the judge's launch," the newspaper reported.

The times recorded by the other two men in this race make interesting reading. New Zealand's J.R.Hill crossed the line in 8min 29.9sec, almost exactly one minute slower than his time in the previous morning's heats.

The other finisher, N.Hatziyakoumis of Greece, having completed his heat in well under eight minutes, took more than 11 minutes to row his repechage race.

Clerici was in the Italian coxless pair crew whose repechage took place immediately before Froemberg's mishap. As such, he may well have been on the water when the wind was whipping up, and would almost certainly have witnessed the problems encountered in the next race.

It seems that was not the only occasion when conditions were less than perfect. Franco Bovo – who worked in Clerici's architectural studio and is the son of Mario Bovo, coach of the Italian eight at both the 1956 and 1960 Games – says the Melbourne course was "questionable", with lots of reeds and a lot of wind.

In their semi-final, which was on November 26, Bovo says, the Italian eight ended up having to row their race with 10 centimetres of water in the bottom of their boat, an insuperable handicap. Not surprisingly, they finished fourth and last. 

As Bovo also tells me, Clerici, who had an American wife, was the only English-speaker on the Italian team at the venue in Ballarat, about 100km outside Melbourne. An expansive character, at least in later life, it is easy to imagine how he might have become involved with talking through such issues with on-course officials.

An account of the other semi-final published in Yale Alumni magazine and focusing on the eventual gold medal-winning United States crew, talks of rowing "all-out on wild, rough water".

According to Duvall Hecht, who sat in the stern of the US coxless pair that also took gold, meanwhile, Clerici's "frustration for the racing conditions at Ballarat were shared by everyone who was there".

Hecht, who recently turned 90, continues: "All you have to do is look at times to imagine what it was like trying to race into that headwind, complete with white caps.

"Hard enough just to stay afloat!"

An improved lane-marking system would, of course, have made no difference to the wind in Victoria. But it seems reasonable to think that it might have made a big difference to oarsmen struggling to orientate themselves in craft built for speed not stability on choppy Lake Wendouree, and that this may have left an impression on Clerici.

Cement platforms at Lake Albano, made to anchor lane cables for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games. The drop in water level means the course can no longer be used ©Franco Bovo
Cement platforms at Lake Albano, made to anchor lane cables for the Rome 1960 Olympic Games. The drop in water level means the course can no longer be used ©Franco Bovo

As rowing writer Chris Dodd observes: "In coxless boats, lane markings are very useful because whoever is steering can see where he is."  

The Melbourne 1956 official report includes a detailed description of the rather basic markings competitors caught in the squall would have been relying on.

"The [five] lanes were marked by coloured discs – yellow, blue, red, white and green," it says. "The discs in the starting bay were placed two feet above the water level at the shore line and in line with discs 30 feet further back on the shore.

"At 500m intervals along the course, discs three-feet in diameter were suspended 12 feet above water level, marking the centre of each lane, with markers placed on shore at the finish."

There were yellow buoys at 100m intervals down either side of the course. Four-foot square distance markers, with black figures on an orange background, were on both sides of the course at 500, 1,000 and 1,500m. There was also a bright orange starting-post six-feet above the water level.

Hecht, whose boat had no rudder, does not remember the overhead banners. "[Bow-man James] Fifer and I shared steering responsibilities," he recalls. "Jim would say, 'touch it!' and I would go from 99 per cent power to 100 per cent until he called 'straightaway'.

"The ridge-pole in the stern section was like a gun barrel pointing at the place on-shore that was in my sights when Jim let me know we were on course. Every ten strokes or so he would take a quick glance over his shoulder to check the heading."

In contrast to this 1956 course, the system which the Italian team preparing for the next Summer Games in 1960 came up with superimposed a fairly rigid geometrical pattern on the body of water that had been chosen as the designated venue for the rowing and canoeing events, Lake Albano.

For aficionados of land sports, for whom marking out the playing surface may involve nothing more complex than a whitewash-wheel, it is worth dwelling for a moment on the magnitude of the engineering feat represented by the Albano system.

Required infrastructure consisted of 14 reinforced concrete piles, seven at either end of the course, sunk into the lake-bed in two lines at 30m intervals.

Seven submerged cables, each attached to 40 red and white plastic buoys, were stretched from the piles at the start of the course to those near the finish 2,000m away.

Winches provided enough tension to keep the markings of the six lanes thus formed straight.

Installation of this new-fangled marking system provoked much interest in the run-up to the Games.

At the time, Pietro Lapertosa was a young athlete taking part in the junior Italian kayak championships. "Like everyone," he remembers, "I was fascinated to see an expanse of buoys neatly placed to form the lanes.

"I was particularly impressed," he goes on. "And when I was free from training I closely followed the installation of the race course."

Lapertosa went on to found a company called Tegysport, which designs, installs and maintains Albano systems and many other items of water-sports installations and equipment.

Pope John Paul II enjoys the view at Lake Albano in 2001, with former American President George W. Bush ©Getty Images
Pope John Paul II enjoys the view at Lake Albano in 2001, with former American President George W. Bush ©Getty Images

The Torbay Express and South Devon Echo was interested enough to run a descriptive report more than six months before the Games in early February.

"Men, some in diving suits, are working in the crater of an ancient volcano to complete one of Europe's most modern rowing sites," it told its readers.

"In spite of considerable difficulties, the competition area has been divided into lane by steel cables laid across the lake, (four feet below the surface). The cables are pulled by capstans, and held steady in all weathers by multi-coloured buoys in plastic material placed along their length at 40ft intervals.

"Before officials set to work, the main access to the lake was a lane winding through vineyards and olive groves."

The piece also claimed the lake was the scene of "one of Italy's most famous unsolved murders".

The new installation also chimed well with the modernising, athlete-focused agenda being pursued by Thomi Keller, the International Rowing Federation's (FISA) forceful young President.

Elected in 1958, aged just 33, Keller would have been competing in Melbourne himself had politics not intervened, keeping Swiss athletes away from the Games.

Throughout what was to be a long and colourful administrative career, Keller accorded a high priority to providing the best – and fairest – possible conditions for all competitors. As the first important innovation under his Presidency, the Albano system provided early evidence that he would practice what he preached on this score.

In an age in which International Sports Federation leaders tended to be elderly gentlemen, the new system also suggested that there could be merit in putting a recently-retired athlete in charge.

For all that, according to Bovo, the young FISA President was initially sceptical about this new installation on the lake in the Alban hills overlooked by Castel Gandolfo, the Papal Palace. 

Always a stickler for detail when it came to regatta courses, and still fit enough to be rowing competitively, he decided to get in a boat and try things out for himself. He came back convinced of the innovation's benefits.

Altogether there were eight Olympic regattas under Keller's long Presidency and Rome 1960 was among the most satisfying.

The surroundings were beautiful, with steep banks of volcanic rock sloping down to the water's edge. Technical installations were top-notch: in addition to the buoying system, both the timing equipment and a large illuminated scoreboard were widely appreciated. The course was fair for all competitors and spectators included its eminent neighbour Pope John XXIII.

Rowing lanes at Rodrigo de Freitas before the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images
Rowing lanes at Rodrigo de Freitas before the Rio 2016 Olympics ©Getty Images

Soviet sculler Viatcheslav Ivanov, smooth as silk at 32 strokes per minute, retained the title he had won at Melbourne. Otherwise, the scene was stolen by the German crews who won the three coxed events, ensuring that the schwarz-rot-gold German flag adorned with white Olympic rings was much in demand for victory ceremonies.

This trio of triumphs included the eights, the blue riband event claimed by the United States at the previous eight Olympic regattas, stretching all the way back to Antwerp 1920.

Unfortunately, Bovo tells me, the water-level at the lake has dropped so much in recent years, that it is no longer accessible for rowing, although kayakers, with their lighter craft, can still utilise it.

Clerici died last year just short of his 90th birthday. I cannot help thinking it would be a fitting tribute if some part of the pioneering system which he and Peccia conceived and implemented could be taken and erected at the Olympic Museum, which after all is on a lake-shore, or perhaps at the Italian National Olympic Committee.

 Any sports innovation that has stood the test of time to this extent warrants the label "historic".