Over a career that spanned almost two decades, Pietro Mennea won many laurels but one race determined his place in the sprinting galaxy.
World Student Games of 1979 was the competition he chose to put his imprint upon and he did exactly that with a world record in the 200 metres that withstood attempts from all comers for close to 17 years, the longest standing world record in that event.
Mennea, who died in Rome at the age of 60 on Thursday, was the Olympic champion in 1980 in the longer sprint and enjoyed a long stint in the sport that took him to five Olympic Games. Along the way came the world record in the high altitude of Mexico City.
The Italian had made his desire apparent well before the competition and arrived early to acclimatise to the rarefied atmosphere of the Mexican capital that is situated at an altitude of 2420 metres above sea level.
He ran 19.96 seconds in the heats and 20.04 in the semifinal before uncorking a blistering 19.72 in the final for the gold medal, finishing way ahead of Leszek Dunecki of Poland (20.24). To the critics who said the record had come at a high altitude, Mennea pointed to the previous record of 19.83 seconds that was set by Tommie Smith eleven years earlier in the same city.
It took a giant of the track and field world to erase Mennea’s record, close to 17 years after he had set it with American Michael Johnson clobbering it two times in 1996.
Johnson first broke the record in the US Olympic trials, clocking 19.66 seconds before improving it further with a 19.32 burst that set alight the Olympic Games at Atlanta.
Considered unbreakable, even that mark is not in the book now, thanks to the exploits of Usain Bolt who ran 19.32 at the Beijing Olympics and then smashed it again in 2009 at the World Championships in Berlin with a sizzling 19.19 run. Despite that, Mennea will remain as a streak of lightning in the history books, and his time is still the best by a European.
Born in Barletta, Southern Italy in 1952, Mennea showed his running talent early. He would race against cars to win bets in his youth and made his Olympic debut at the age of 20, winning the bronze medal at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
He had to wait for eight more years to earn the tag of Olympic champion, triumphing in the 1980 Moscow Games that was boycotted by several nations led by the United States in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Uncertainty over the Italian participation meant Mennea wasn’t at the peak of his form when the Games arrived and in the 100M, he failed to make the final. Briton Allan Wells blazed away to victory and looked set for a double but a different story unfolded in the 200M.
Wells blasted off quickly – perhaps too quickly – and built a good lead into the straight but the race down the straight showcased the Italian’s finishing prowess as he caught up with the Briton and edged ahead for the gold medal in 20.19 seconds. Wells took silver in 20.21.
“He was my biggest rival in Europe, a formidable opponent at 200M. I didn’t really have a rapport with him. He never spoke much. But I had the greatest respect for him. What he did with the world record in Mexico was fantastic. It stood for, what, 15 years? That in itself tells you how good it was,” Wells told Britain’s The Independent newspaper.
Mennea, nicknamed the Arrow of the South, won the bronze in the 200M at the first World Championships in 1983 at Helsinki and went on to make the final of the 200M at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, becoming the first man to appear in four successive Olympic 200M finals. He finally hung up his spikes after the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, where he was Italy’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
Mennea revealed that in 1984 he had used Human Growth Hormone, which was not banned at the time. But he argued steadfastly against doping later on in life when he worked as a lawyer and also as a member of the European parliament.
“Doping was ‘done’ back then. It originated in eastern countries. I competed in five Olympic Games because I had practised a manner of sport which was constant and correct. If I hadn’t kept on the straight and narrow, I doubt I would have lasted so long,” he had said. “Doping may create grand results on one level but it certainly doesn’t bring longevity to an athlete’s career.”