Italy and the world of sport mourn the loss of Pietro Paolo Mennea, the best European sprinter ever, who was the 1980 Moscow Olympic 200 meter Champion, and also held the 200 m world record for 17 years with his time of 19.72. Unfortunately, a bad disease run faster than him this time.
Mennea was born in Barletta (Region Puglia) in 1952, started his long international athletic career in 1971, where he won the first of his 14 Italian outdoor titles in the 100/200m. He went on to win 2 Indoor titles at 60/400, along with 5 Mediterranean Games Golds in 100/200. He competed at the European Championships with a third place in the 4 x 100 m relay. He made his Olympic debut at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he made the final of the 200 m, his strongest event. He crossed the line in third place, behind Valeri Borzov and Larry Black. Three more Olympic 200 metre finals would follow later in his career.
“Borzov was without doubt my greatest rival,” Mennea said. “He was very tough to beat. He had a great physique and was a very strong sprinter. He was someone I looked up to as a young sprinter and there’s no hiding that trying to beat him was my biggest motivation.”
At the 1974 European Championships, Mennea claimed the 200 m gold in front of his home crowd in Rome. “The stadium that day was full,” he enthused. “There were 70,000 people behind me for the final and the atmosphere was electrifying. Certainly, I had very little difficulty to raise my performance as the warmth and support of the Italians pushed me to victory that day.”
After some poor performances in the 1976 Olympic season, Mennea decided to skip the Olympics, but when the Italian public protested Mennea went to Montreal. He did make it to the final of the 200 m, but saw Don Quarrie take the gold, leaving the Italian in fourth. He again placed fourth when the Italian relay team just missed out on the bronze. In 1977 he finished 2nd in the World Cup 200, where a photo finish separated him from US sprinter Clancy Edwards. He successfully defended his European 200 m title in 1978, but displayed his capabilities on the 100 metres by also winning that event in Prague.
In 1979, Mennea was 1st in the 100, and 2nd in the 200 behind Allan Wells of Great Britain in the European Cup. But afterwards since he was a student in political sciences, took part in the World University Games, which were held on the high-altitude track of Mexico City. His winning time in the 200, 19.72, was the new world record, beating the former world record by Tommie Smith set on the same track in the 1968 Summer Olympics. The record held out for 17 years (Mennea also held the low-altitude world record from 1980 to 1983: 19.96, set in his home town, Barletta), and was finally beaten by Michael Johnson at the US Trials for the 1996 Summer Olympics. As of 1 March 2013 still only eight athletes recorded a better time over 200 metres than Mennea’s world record. On 17 August 1980, Mennea became the first sprinter to break 20 seconds for the 200 metres for the third time.
The world record holder was also one of the favourites for the Olympic gold in Moscow, also because of the American boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics. In the 200 m final, Mennea faced reigning champion Don Quarrie, and 100 m champion Allan Wells. Wells seemed to be heading for the gold, but Mennea slowly drew closer on the straight, and edged the Scotsman for the gold by 0.02 seconds. Alan Wells told BBC: “In the 200m final I was up against Italy’s world record holder, Pietro Mennea, and he had physical and mental energy that he hadn’t used up in the 100m. It was only in the last 15m that he came up on my shoulder and I took a couple of hundredths of a second off him with my dip. I thought I’d got him on the line but in real terms it was about eight inches, two-hundredths of a second.“.
“Winning the gold medal in the Moscow Olympics is a memory I will treasure forever,” Mennea told The Sunday Times. “I was up against some of the best sprinters of that era. I just edged ahead of Britain’s Alan Wells, who had won the 100 metres event in those Games, and reigning champion Don Quarrie, of Jamaica, with only a few hundreths of a second seperating us. The Olympic gold medal was the fruit of years of hard work.”
In 1983, in Cassino, he clocked a manual 14.8 seconds in 150 metres, a world best time that he held until it was bettered by Usain Bolt in Manchester in 2009. Mennea, known in Italy as the Freccia del Sud (“Arrow of the South”), then announced his retirement, allowing himself more time for his study. However, he came back from retirement soon, and won a bronze medal in the 200 m at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki. A year later, he competed in his fourth consecutive Olympic 200 m final, becoming the first person to do so. The defending champion finished in seventh, and retired from athletics for a second time afterwards. Again, Mennea made a comeback, and competed in his fifth Olympics in Seoul, but did not make it through the heats of the 200 m.
“I ran in five Olympic Games and each time I faced different opponents,” Mennea recalled in a recent interview to The Times of Malta. “I think one of my biggest assets was my longevity as an athlete. Today it’s very difficult for a sprinter to be able to compete at the highest level for almost 30 years. During my career, I always trained very hard without trying to take the short route to success,” he added in a clear reference to doping. “I was lucky enough not to suffer a serious injury and that certainly helped me to enjoy a very long career.” Mennea admitted that he had used human growth hormone during his career, but after the world record in 1984. Although the usage of the substance is banned in modern-day competition, it was not banned at the time by the International Amateur Athletic Federation.
Mennea, a lawyer by profession, was a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004 elected on the list of The Democrats, but failed in his attempt to be re-elected.
Giovanni Malago’, the president of CONI, the Italian Olympic committee, decided to cancel all his institutional engagements and return to Rome, where the body of the athlete will be laid to rest at the CONI headquarters.