Sprint legend Mennea dies
200m record stood for 17 years21 March, 19:11
(ANSA) - Rome, March 21 - Italian sprint legend Pietro Mennea, holder of the world 200m record for an amazing 17 years, died Thursday in Rome at the age of 60 after a long battle against cancer.
The so-called 'Southern Arrow', who came from the Puglia town of Barletta, was a whippet-thin but incredibly determined athlete whose innovative training techniques allowed him to compete with, and often beat, the world's best over a 15-year career.
Mennea recorded his startling mark of 19.72 seconds in the World Student Games in Mexico City in 1979. It would only be beaten in 1996 by US great Michael Johnson, who took it down to 19.66 in the US trials and then to 19.32 at the Atlanta Olympics.
Asked once by Muhammad Ali why the fastest man on Earth "could possibly be a white man", the Italian of peasant ancestry quipped back: "I'm blacker than you on the inside".
Mennea went on to win the 200m gold at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, beating Scottish sprinter Allan Wells by two hundredths of a second after a trademark storming comeback finish in a Games where the great US blacks were absent because of a boycott following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Wells, who just held Mennea off to claim the 100m gold that year, said Thursday: "I'm very sad, he was my greatest rival". Valery Borzov, the Soviet 100m and 200m Olympic champ in Munich in 1972, "a very great athlete has gone".
The 63-year-old Ukrainian mused sadly, "he was younger than me...this time he went too fast".
Sara Simeoni, the Italian high-jumper who won gold in the same Moscow games where Mennea triumphed and trained with him at Formia between Rome and Naples, said "Pietro had incredible tenacity...at Formia we shared the work load, we encouraged each other, a look in the eye was enough".
The ex-coach who set up the Formia training camp, Carlo Vittori, said: "I first saw Pietro run at the Italian youth championships in Ascoli in 1968: then and there I understood he was a natural talent, a force of nature.
"But his biggest gifts were his work ethic and stubbornness, he was a real pneumatic drill.
"If by chance I arrived five minutes late for training, he was there tapping his watch".
Vittori said Mennea, who later became a member of the European Parliament, led a plaintiffs' campaign for the victims of the Lehman Brothers' collapse, and wrote 24 books on various subjects, was "a champion on and off the track".
In his last interview, with ANSA on August 10 last year, an already-ailing Mennea spoke at length about his successors, including Johnson, Carl Lewis and Usain Bolt.
"Carl was the best, although he never beat my record, but the all-time great has to be Usain," the subject of his 24th book.
Italian and world sport went into mourning as news of Mennea's death spread. "He leaves a great hole in the Olympic movement", said the president of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogge.
The International Association of Athletics Federations said it was "sad to hear the news that Italian sprint legend Pietro Mennea has passed away".
The president of the Italian Olympic Committee, Giovanni Malago', said: "He wasn't a superman, but he knew how to make history". Italy soccer coach Cesare Prandelli said: "He had the force that we too have inside, to the nth degree". Italy will don black armbands for their friendly with Brazil in Geneva Thursday evening.
"All Italian sport is in mourning," said Serie A champions Juventus on their website.
Formula One racing team Ferrari said "we are grieving for a standard-bearer of Italian sport".
The Italian railway company said its next high-speed Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) train would be named after Mennea. Barletta, the hard-scrabble port where Mennea grew up, declared a day of mourning Friday.