ANOTHER VISION OF SPORT: PALESTRE POPOLARI IN ITALY an Interview with CoNaSP Network red gym trainers Giulio and Luigi.
Posted by Brighton Antifascists
In Italy Palestre Popolari (popular gyms) a.k.a. red gyms are going strong, in Rome alone you can find seven. All of them in squatted buildings. The range of disciplines vary depending on the politics of the specific social centre and its organizers. For example, if you go to Centro Sociale la Torre (a small squatted farm filled with children) the kind of activities you find in the gym are Capoeira, juggling, aerial acrobatics, Chinese pole and archery. Basically it is the needs of the community, and the original discipline of the trainers, that broadly shape the nature of a popular gym.
We visited Palestra Popolare Valerio Verbano which is located smack in the middle of Tufello a neighborhood in the outskirts of Rome made up predominantly of council flats, squats and social centres. The gym is named after Valerio Verbano, a 19 year old antifascist militant from the Autonomia Operaia: an Italian Anarcho-Communist workers movement from the late 70s, early 80s. Valerio had released photographic and written dossiers on the relationship between fascist organizations, mafia rings and the state. He was murdered on 22nd of February of 1980 by two fascists who had broken into his home. Now a symbol of resistance, Valerios’s old house lies just round the corner from the gym. The Valerio Verbano gym was born out of a 2005 failed occupation (later to be successful) and has become of the oldest and most successful gyms in Europe. The gym prides itself in providing professional training in boxing, kick boxing, Muay Thai and gymnastics (as well as a series of other disciplines). The high standard of training has led it to become deeply ingrained in official circuits of sport (both at the regional and national level) and is to celebrate its 10 year anniversary August of this year.
In the middle of a packed training session (of about 30 fighters) we spoke to Giulio a founding member and senior trainer at the gym (full interview can be found linked at the bottom of this article). He explains, it was important for us, the locals and other comrades to ‘create a space of gathering that wasn’t the typical social centre.’ Tufello is a deprived neighborhood with a strong antifascist and radical history. However, a lot of teenagers end up on the streets ‘there are a lot of drugs and criminality.’ Setting up a popular gym creates a space where working class people can train, practice discipline sports and engage in healthy activities in an antiracist, antifascist and antisexist environment. My role inside the gym explains Giulio, ‘is that of creating culture… outside of the gym my antifascism takes a different form’ but inside the gym it is that of allowing young people to ‘grow up with values of equality and anti-racism; making them grow up with the consciousness of our histories, without indoctrinating them.’
This however cannot be done at the cost of providing a below standard level of training explains Giulio. The Valerio Verbano gym costs 30 euros a month and is staffed by qualified instructors, personal trainers, doctors, physiotherapists and nutritionists. ‘You have a team of people that follow you and take you to compete both at the regional and national level’ (just an example of this is fighter Tatiana qualifying third place for her weight at the FIKBMS Italian Federation women’s kickboxing championship on the 16th of March). It is an understatement to say that the Valerio Verbano gym is part of Italy’s mainstream fight scene.
However it is not just popular gyms that have managed to integrate in the official circuits of sport. Fascist militants from Casa Pound (a fascist street based and parliamentary movement) have established their own network of gyms (Il Circuito – Circolo Combattenti Casa Pound). This is just another addition to Casa Pound establishing services and organizations that in their role mimic those of the militant left: food banks, free doctors, social centres… just to name a few (all exclusively for white Italians, obviously!). ‘Fundamentally [the Circuito] is our parallel… they have their own network, they compete in tournaments at a national level… but they are not well seen, it often happens that they are asked to leave. In fact they often operate in closed circuits where they basically just fight against each other and just beat the shit out of each other and that’s the end of the story.’ However in every single instance where attacks have been carried out by Casa Pound militants those involved have always been linked to the Circuito. Proving that ‘all these pretty words they have been spewing probably stealing them from our own lexicon’ about training for the sake training ‘are obviously just piss in the wind’ says Giulio.
The dynamic of closed fighting circuits like those of Casa Pound ‘is a system which we don’t like to adopt’ says Giulio: ‘Yes if we have a tournament where different palestre popolari come together for a day and compete and share skills, ok. But in relation to antifascism, when I compete in official networks I find myself fighting against a fascist, and it is there that I need to prove my worth. Because I can guarantee that if you enter the ring with a Palestra Popolare Valerio Verbano Shirt… and you find yourself in front of a right wing militant his instinct is to beat the shit out of you. So either you beat him or you’re fucked.’ In 2014 a network of palestre popolari was set up by Giulio and other likeminded trainers: CoNaSP (National Coordination of Popular Sport). The establishment of the network however highlighted a split amongst Italian popular gyms. Many other gyms operate in closed circuits like those disliked by Giulio and see themselves exclusively as a place where militants train. Giulio’s particular school of thought on the matter is that you cannot ask a member to prove their antifascism in order to join the gym. That politics should not be a prerequisite for joining but something that is cultivated in the ethos of the gym. ‘A palestra popolare in itself has antifascist values, I don’t need to write that we are an antifascist gym, we are called Palestra Popolare Valerio Verbano, named after a 19 year old antifascist who was killed in his house by fascists, so the nature of the gym is clear. Anyways, this debate reduced the number of gyms that adhere to CoNaSP. Many of these other gyms were not at a high level where they could integrate properly into the network anyways but for us it was a shame because this could have been a real opportunity.’
On the day of our visit we were lucky enough to also meet Luigi, a senior trainer from another CoNaSP member gym, Palestra Popolare Palermo (Palermo, Sicily). Luigi had travelled to Rome for a match so our interview developed in the midst of training (and was unfortunately a bit more ad hoc than the one with Giulio).
The Palermo gym was born as an ‘ASD’: Associazione Sportiva Dilettantistica (a community amateur sports club) in 2013. But began its journey in 2003 within the now relocated Centro Sociale (social centre) ExKarcere, and operates in regional and national circuits, predominantly three disciplines: Boxing, Muay Thai and Powerlifting. The gym ‘was born from a need by the collective that organized the space to be able to practice sport outside the logic of the market. Inside a space free of racial, gender and class-based discrimination.’ The important thing for us was to be ‘attractive to all different components of the city. So basically, not only for comrades, not only for those who are politicized.’ As well as not to ‘forgo any aspects of our project (being antifascist, antiracist, antisexist, anticapitalist) whilst still being able to integrate within the official circuits of sport.’ In its 5 years of life the Palermo gym seems to have quite successfully adhered to its aims: ‘we have several semi professional boxers, whilst in May 2018 our boxer Gainluca Bentivegna will be competing for the National Belt for the super-lightweights category. Our Verdiana Mineo has also just qualified first place in the regional Powerlifting championship for her weight and overall’ (Again, to say that the Palermo gym is integrated in the mainstream fight scene is an understatement!)
Having achieved such a success in such a short time we asked Luigi if he had any advice for emerging red gyms, he replied: ‘The important thing for all spaces that have the objective of conveying a political message is to not close off from the rest of the community, to not exclude. To convey these messages (and not just simply preach to the converted) these spaces need to be open to the city. And if the city cannot reach these spaces, it is these spaces that need to go where people are.’ The Palermo gym has recently began a project where trainers from the gym travel to colleges around Palermo to train school students.
‘Often there is a risk (and in Italy some gyms are going in this direction) of creating a space only for ‘elites’, only for those who are already militants. But if you are already a militant you are already pointed in the right direction, it seems a bit useless. If you are a militant it becomes an issue of training and formation, which can have its place but is a bit unnecessary to publicize. In fact, it is best not to publicize it at all. The important thing is to distinguish between the two things.’
Luigi argues that a same logic should be applied to antifascism. He explains: ‘Squaddism only works if you bring 1000s of people to the street like we did in Palermo.’ Luigi is referring to a mass demonstration which was organized in Palermo following the binding and gagging of far-right political party Forza Nuova’s provincial leader: Massimo Ursino by antifascists. The following day 5000+ people flooded the streets with duck tape mimicking that which had been used to tie up Ursino. ‘You need both squaddism and community organizing, if one excludes the other it is partial. Force without mass movement does not allow others to get involved. Antifascism then starts to seem like something that is only carried out by militants, and therefore excludes a lot of people that cannot relate or do not know how to get involved. So squaddism must be followed, or accompanied by big popular based movements that all can join into.’
We let Luigi finish off his training and said our goodbyes. Ultimately Giulio and Luigi are part of a particular school of thought on how red gyms should be run and they seem to be doing really fucking well at it! It is undeniable that they have achieved incredible successes both competitively and politically. Their advice for us seems clear: keep red gyms open to all the community and try to convey political messages whilst you do that. Hopefully we can build towards similar successes over here!
A big thank you to Giulio and Luigi for giving us the interview on such short notice & good luck to Palermo’s Gainluca Bentivegna who will be competing for the super-lightweights National belt this month!!
Giulio has expressed an interest in visiting us at Left Hook for a seminar and discussion, we’ll keep everyone updated.
For more information about Palestra Popolare Vlerio Verbano please visit (and give a like to):
For Pelastra Popolare Palermo: