It was with great sadness that the IAAF today received the news that Italian sprinting legend Pietro Mennea passed away this morning (21 March) at a hospital in Rome after a long battle with illness.
Born in Barletta (DOB 28 June 1952), Mennea made his international debut while still a junior, finishing sixth in the 200m at the 1971 European Championships and taking bronze in the 4x100m. One year later, aged just 20, he made his first appearance at an Olympic Games and secured the bronze medal in the 200m.
In 1974 he won gold in the 200m and silver in the 100m and 4x100m in front of a home crowd at the European Championships in Rome. He just missed out on a medal at the 1976 Olympics, finishing fourth in the 200m, but bounced back two years later at the 1978 European Championships to take double gold in the 100m and 200m.
But it’s his performance at the 1979 World University Games that will remain as one of the lasting memories of Mennea’s career. Aided by the altitude of Mexico City, Mennea smashed his 200m personal best with 19.96 in the heats, then obliterated it again in the final with a world record of 19.72.
His time remained as the world record for 17 years – the longest-standing world record in the history of the 200m – and was finally broken by Michael Johnson in 1996, first with his 19.66 at the US Trials, then at the Atlanta Olympics with 19.32. Mennea's 19.72 still stands as the European record, while his 10.01 PB in the 100m remains as the Italian record.
While his 19.72 remained the fastest clocking of his career, his greatest triumph was undoubtedly his 200m victory at the 1980 Olympics, where he beat Alan Wells and Don Quarrie to the gold medal.
That was to be the last major championships gold medal of Mennea’s career, and in 1983 he announced his retirement. That was short-lived, however, and he came back to win two medals at the 1983 World Championships (bronze in the 200m and silver in the 4x100m).
An accomplished 400m runner, he won the 1978 European indoor 400m title and was part of the bronze medal-winning Italian 4x400m team at the 1980 Olympics. He also competed in the 4x400m at the 1984 Games, clocking a sub-45 anchor leg. At the same LA Games, he became the first man in history to compete in four successive Olympic 200m finals.
Mennea once again hung up his spikes after 1984, but returned one more time for a final Olympic appearance in 1988 at the age of 36, where he was Italy’s flag bearer at the opening ceremony.
The IAAF mourns his loss and offers its deepest and sincerest condolences to his family and friends. His funeral will be held on Saturday morning (March 23) at the Basilica of Santa Sabina in Aventino, Rome.