Italian athletics great Pietro Mennea, the gold medal winner in the 200m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics who held the world record in the event for 17 years, has died.
Mennea was pronounced dead in a Rome hospital yesterday morning following a long battle with an as yet unnamed incurable disease. He was 60.
A 14-time outdoor Italian champion in his preferred events of the 100m and 200m, Mennea was perhaps best known for setting a world record of 19.72 seconds in Mexico City in 1979 which stood for nearly two decades.
“I never thought for a minute it would last that long,” Mennea said in a 1996 interview. “I didn’t even think at the time I had run that fast.”
Mennea’s time beat the previous record set by American Tommie Smith, and remained unbeaten for 17 years — until it was bettered by another US sprint great, Michael Johnson, in 1996.
Usain Bolt holds the current 200m record of 19.19 seconds, set at the 2009 world championships in Berlin.
The following year Mennea went to the Moscow Olympics as the favorite for the 200m, especially given the absence of US athletes due to the American boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Although he only reached the semi-finals of the 100m, the Italian edged ahead of Scotland’s Allan Wells in the final meters of the home straight to take a stunning gold in the 200m.
Paying tribute, Livio Berruti — the Olympic 200m gold winner at the 1960 Games in Rome — said: “Today we’ve lost a man who always competed with ferocity and determination. He epitomized resistance, tenacity and suffering.”
Such was Mennea’s popularity in Italy that a minute’s silence was due to be held prior to the Brazil v Italy soccer friendly yesterday in Geneva, where the Azzurri will also wear black armbands.
Affectionately known as the “Arrow of the South” (Freccia del Sud in Italian), Mennea announced his retirement in 1983, but soon returned to win a 200m bronze at the inaugural World Athletics Championships in Helsinki that same year.
A year later he became the first person to appear in a fourth consecutive 200m Olympic final, at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
He failed to make the medals and, after yet another retirement, returned to competition in time for the Seoul Games of 1988 where he failed to make the final in his fifth Olympics.
Mennea later admitted to using human growth hormone (HGH) to aid his performances.
At the time HGH was not yet a banned substance and it took the authorities until after 2004 to begin targeting its use through blood testing. Nowadays, HGH is on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list of banned substances.
Upon hearing the news of Mennea’s death, the president of Italy’s Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago, returned to Rome from Milan where he had been on business and is expected to help organize Mennea’s funeral.
Over his career Mennea gleaned one gold and two bronzes from the Olympic Games, a silver and a bronze from the world championships, three European titles and six Mediterranean titles.
His influence will also be felt outside the world of athletics.
After hanging up his spikes Mennea went on to help run Italian soccer club Salernitana, which gained only its second ever promotion to Italy’s top flight in 1998, but enjoyed only a one-season stay in Serie A.
It coincided with Mennea’s election to the European Parliament, as a Democrat, from 1999 to 2004.
Mennea was an outspoken critic of Rome’s plans to bid for the 2020 Olympics, before Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti withdrew government support.
“We’re a nation devastated by a scary economic crisis. How could we think about proposing something like this now?” Mennea said in an interview with Corriere della Sera early last year. “Zero-cost Olympics don’t exist. The real priorities of the country lie elsewhere.”