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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 February 2006, 13:15 GMT
Anthem row hits Italian luge man
By Mark Duff
BBC News, Milan

Gerhard Plankensteiner
Gerhard Plankensteiner (top) and Oswald Haselrieder speak German
A row has broken out in Italy after one of the country's Winter Olympics bronze medal winners admitted not knowing the words to the national anthem.

As Gerhard Plankensteiner hurtled down an icy run at 126km/h, in a two-man luge, he was not to know the question awaiting him at the end.

It was a question designed to test not his sporting prowess - but his national identity.

Would he, he was asked, have sung the national anthem if he had won gold?

In his distinctly Germanic accent, Mr Plankensteiner replied "Excuse me - I don't know that song."

Italian brothers, Italy has arisen; let one flag, one hope bring us together
Italian national anthem

Cue a political row - made all the more embarrassing because Mr Plankensteiner works as a Forest Guard, part of the Italian police force.

Some politicians demanded that the hero should apologise - or hand his medal back.

He duly did apologise.

He had meant no insult; it was just that his Italian was not very good.

Defending autonomy

Mr Plankensteiner - like his partner Oswald Haselrieder and Italy's only gold medal winner to date, Armin Zoeggeler - is from Alto Adige, the country's northern-most region.

Until the end of World War I, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was, in short, part of Italy's war booty.

Most people there still speak German as their first language.

Only last month, all but three of the area's 116 mayors signed a petition asking Austria to include an undertaking in its new constitution to defend Alto Adige's autonomous status, German language and traditions.

So, however many more medals the men from Alto Adige win, they are unlikely to be singing this part of the Italian national anthem: "Mercenary swords" - it boasts - "are feeble reeds - and the Austrian eagle has lost his plumes".


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