(Photo credit: Simone Ferraro/FGI)
"Many people just focus on my looks and say: 'He’s got tattoos so he must be a bad boy, a troublemaker, someone without values…'", says Nicola Bartolini.
The Italian gymnast loves eye-catching tattoos - he's got over 50 on his body (including a giant face of 'Saw' on his back, from his favourite movie) - and he knows that he may look different from many of his colleagues.
Winning a historic gold medal for his nation at the 2021 FIG World Championships in Kitakyushu, Japan, made him stand out even more.
The 25-year-old became the first Italian man to win a world title in artistic gymnastics since Olympic champion Juri Chechi took gold in the rings in 1997.
On the floor exercise, no Italian male gymnast before Bartolini had stepped on the podium at the Worlds since 1964 (Franco Menichelli).
Olympics.com spoke exclusively with him to talk about his rise in the sport, his admiration for Alexei Nemov and his ambition to qualify the Italian team for Paris 2024.
Olympics.com: You made history for Italian gymnastics just a few weeks ago by winning gold in the floor event at the World Champs: how has it changed your life?
Nicola Bartolini: My life hasn’t changed a lot, I’m just not training as much as I’m used to. At the moment, I am busier with media and other commitments, but soon I’ll go back to the gym.
O: Before the gold in Kitakyushu, you won European bronze early this year: what was the process that made you reach your potential at 25?
NB: The bronze medal that I won at the European Championships kind of opened my eyes and helped me understand that my level is not actually that far from the standards in the gymnastics world. Maybe my start is not that strong, but I make up for it during the performance and this has helped me.
I reached my peak this season because I feel more mature and I have more international experience since these were my fourth or fifth world championships. Now, I have the mental and physical maturity to achieve these results.
O: Can you talk about the setbacks through your career and how they helped you become what you are?
NB: In professional sport, injuries are part of the game, and it’s important also the mental recovery. I had surgery twice on the same shoulder and being mentally prepared helped me. Even if your body feels weakened, having a team of coaches and physios around you and also a balanced life outside the gym makes the process a bit easier. I had the mental strength to stay focused, the mind is everything in this sport.
O: It’s probably since Juri Chechi in the ‘90s that a male Italian gymnast hasn’t made headlines in your country, how proud are you of this?
NB: For sure this medal brought the spotlight on the men’s gymnastics, and I hope I can inspire more kids to take up this sport. It’s also a bit sad because the press should talk about athletes also when they face difficult moments during their career and not just jump on the bandwagon when they win. When the Italian team missed the Olympic qualification, all the papers said that our men’s gymnastics was dead, but that wasn’t true. With my result and my teammates’ results at these Worlds, we showed that it’s not the case.
O: What inspiration did you have when growing up?
NB: Alexei Nemov is one of the most elegant and technical gymnasts of his time. His technical skills could still be competitive in today’s gymnastics. I could never compare myself to him, but he was a gymnast who always impressed me, and he also impressed the judges. In Italy, I always admired Alberto Busari, he was a model for me thanks to his dedication and work ethic.
O: You’ve been very in demand with media since winning gold, what makes you different from other gymnasts?
NB: The truth is that I don’t feel that different from the other gymnasts. Maybe I have more tattoos, which are part of my sparkly personality, but at the end of the day, we are all hard workers. I like to smile and make jokes, others are simply more introverted.
In the sport [having a strong personality] helps for sure because if you can ‘sell yourself’ well you can reach out to more people, otherwise, it’s hard to share and get your message across.
O: How important are social media for you?
NB: I try to use it mainly as a way to make gymnastics more popular and to tell my life to as many people as possible. Then I use these platforms to monetise my image and get sponsorships.
Social media is a double-edged weapon though: they give you visibility, but at the same time, if you have many followers, you can get distracted. In my case, my goal is not to excel on social media, but to win medals and do gymnastics.
O: What image would you like to portray about yourself?
NB: Many people just focus on my looks and say: “He’s got tattoos so he must be a bad boy, a troublemaker, someone without values…” But people around me know that I never go out because I am always focused on training and I want to perform at the best of my capabilities in the gym. So the image I want to give of myself is of someone who’s nice and creative, but also a professional gymnast. Because if I were a hot head, I would have never achieved the results that I had.
O: Everybody is talking about your over 50 tattoos: what about this passion?
NB: When I was a kid, I used to tell my mum that I wanted many tattoos and I see this as a form of art. It’s also a way to mark an important event in my life. Sometimes the tattoo doesn’t have anything to do with the event, but it reminds me of it.
One week after my return, I had a tattoo to commemorate my win in Japan but I don’t plan my tattoos, it depends on my mood and on my free time, because they take time to heal. At the moment, there’s nothing in my plans.
O: If you could invite someone to dinner to celebrate your gold, who would you call?
NB: Marco Materazzi. I am an Inter Milan fan and I always liked him as a footballer because he led Italy to the FIFA World Cup win in 2006, he was a great professional and I always liked his personality, which was out of the ordinary.
O: What are your next goals?
NB: I don’t have any event until February 2022, and next year, I will focus on the Euros and the Worlds.
The best is yet to come because I’m still 25 and I just achieved my best results, but I haven’t reached my career best yet, I can do even better because I’m waiting to take part in the most important competition, the Olympics.
My main focus is the team. I want to die in peace after helping the Italian team qualify for the Olympics in Paris.
There are many strong teams like Russia, Korea, Japan, China, USA, Ukraine, Spain, Turkey…but now Italy is amongst them. In the last two years, Italy has achieved some important results so other teams should be worried about us, too.