USA: Rocky KO win on Philly steps

By Steve McKenna

It's a crisp winter morning in Philadelphia and a group of schoolchildren have lined up at the base of the steps leading to the city's Museum of Art.

Their teacher pulls the trigger of an imaginary starter's gun and the youngsters dash up the 72 slabs of concrete. The tallest one surges to the top first, where he breaks out in a huge grin, spins in a circle and jumps up and down, fists pumping the air.

A stone's throw away, a middle-aged man moves towards a bronze statue. Taking off his shirt, he reveals a paunchy stomach underneath his vest. He smiles then holds his arms aloft - like a boxer who has just vanquished his fiercest rival - while his partner takes a photograph.

After checking it's a good shot he puts his shirt back on, walks over to the steps and begins to jog up them.

Such scenes may seem peculiar to the uninitiated. But those familiar with the word "Rocky" will understand that these people - young and not so young - are fulfilling a lifetime's ambition.

Philadelphia is a city steeped in history. Once the second largest English-speaking centre after London, it was the first capital of the United States and even overshadowed New York in terms of political and social clout.

The United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed in Independence Hall - one of the city's many stunning colonial buildings - and Philly resident Betsy Ross is said to have sewn the first American flag for George Washington.

Writer Edgar Allan Poe drafted many of his macabre stories and poems here.

And the city is home to one of the most gluttonous yet scrumptious snacks in the world, the Philly cheese steak.

Yet for all these credentials, and to the chagrin of city's cultural element, thousands of visitors arrive every year purely because of a low-budget movie made here in 1976.

Starring a then-unknown Sylvester Stallone, Rocky is the Oscar-winning rags-to-riches tale of a veteran prize fighter and part-time debt collector who gets a shot at the world heavyweight title.

Written off by everyone as a bum and a no-hoper, the Italian Stallion sets out to prove the world wrong.

Displaying incredible guts and determination, Rocky launches into a harsh training regime, lifting weights, guzzling raw eggs and pounding meat in a filthy slaughterhouse.

Then he caps it all off with one of the most inspirational and iconic scenes in film history.

Running along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with his adoring young supporters, Rocky finds his second wind and begins to hurdle benches and seagulls before breaking into a sprint and hauling himself up the museum steps.

When he reaches the top, he spins round and round, jumps up and down, with his fists punching the air, as the camera captures the beautiful panoramic views of the city.

It's a magical cinematic moment and, as this morning testifies, the scene still has the same effect today as it did all those years ago, regardless of whether you were born when it had its premiere.

The film's universal popularity was recently tapped into by two Philadelphia journalists who spent 12 months recording the stories of many of the people - young and old - who visited the steps.

The resulting book, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America's Most Famous Steps, reveals that the character of Rocky has been an inspiration for countless lives and inspired many an attitude of "if he can do it, so can I".

Stallone is well aware of the impact his character has had on his audience and said as much in his foreword for the book: "You can't borrow Superman's cape," he wrote. "You can't use the Jedi laser sword. But the steps are there. The steps are accessible. And standing up there, you kind of have a piece of the Rocky pie."

Thanks to Stallone, you can also have a piece of the Rocky statue that was used in the franchise's third instalment.

Following the film's release in 1982, the chisel-featured action man offered to leave the 2.6m, 300kg effigy as a gift to the city.

Many residents were happy to adopt the actor - a New Yorker - to their hearts. But some were opposed to the statue, saying it was nothing but a tacky movie prop and should be knocked down.

The authorities sided with the film's fans and it has been in Philadelphia ever since, although it has been shifted a few times: from the top of the steps, to the city's Spectrum sports arena and now to the bottom of the steps.

This latest spot has proved a big hit with tourists, who get the chance to be photographed alongside the memorial before posing like their hero and making the well-trodden ascent.

With the release of the series' sixth film, Rocky Balboa, there will be some of you fans out there who will be tempted to make the pilgrimage.

It will give you a terrific buzz, that's for sure - but you'll probably have to wait your turn.

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