The death yesterday of Pietro Mennea, an Olympic sprint champion who held the 200 metres world record for 17 years, marks the passing of true Italian sporting great.
The Italian Olympic Committee said that Mennea, 60, died in a Rome clinic. No cause of death was given.
Mennea won gold in the 200 and bronze in the 4x400m relay at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, plus a bronze in the 200m at the 1972 Munich Games.
He set the 200m world record of 19.72 seconds on 12 September 1979, at the World University Games at high altitude in Mexico City. He broke Tommie Smith’s record of 19.83sec, set on the same track at the 1968 Olympics.
Mennea’s record stood until Michael Johnson ran 19.66sec on June 23, 1996, at the US Olympic trials. Johnson then lowered the mark to 19.32sec at the Atlanta Olympics later that year.
“I never thought for a minute it would last that long,” Mennea said in 1996. “I didn’t even think at the time I had run that fast.”
Usain Bolt holds the current 200 record of 19.19, set at the 2009 world championships in Berlin.
Mennea also won four golds at European championships – three outdoor and one indoor – plus a silver and a bronze at world championships. He still holds the European 200m record.
International Olympic Committee member Franco Carraro called Mennea “among the greatest of all time in world athletics”.
Giovanni Malago, president of the Italian Olympic Committee, said: “I knew about his illness but it was kept quiet as much as possible, which goes along with what type of person he was.”
Mennea’s body will lie in state at the Italian Olympic committee headquarters today and a minute’s silence will be held at all sports events in the country this weekend. His funeral will be held tomorrow in Rome.
Italy’s football team planned to wear black armbands for last night’s friendly against Brazil in Geneva.
After his athletics career, Mennea worked as a lawyer and sports agent and was a member of the European Parliament.