PIETRO Mennea, who has died aged just 60, is best remembered in this country for one race – the 200-metres final at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, in which he pipped Allan Wells for the gold medal.
The Italian had set the world record the previous year, and would hold it for another 16, but he had achieved that at altitude in Mexico City, at the relatively low-key World University Games. Under the far more intense pressure of the Olympics, he had not looked so impressive, and failed to reach the final of the 100m, won by Wells.
So, when it came to the early rounds of the longer sprint, the Scot appeared to have the psychological advantage. But, in those heats, Mennea quickly showed he had recovered from the blow of failing to reach the 100m final and, in the 200 final, he timed his strike for the line just right, winning in 20.19 seconds to Wells’s 20.21.
Wells was impressed then – and is to this day – not only by the Italian’s racing ability, but by his feat of picking himself up from the disappointment of the 100. “In the 200m he was able to come back from a very negative situation after going out of the 100m in the semi-finals,” the Edinburgh athlete said yesterday. “He had a talk with Valeriy Borzov, [the Soviet athlete who had won the Olympic sprint double eight years earlier], and I think that sorted things out for him.
“He probably had the edge in the 200 because he had not run so many legs of the 100. Physically and mentally he would be that bit less fatigued.
“I remember he ran 20.5sec in the first round of the 200 and everyone was going round saying he was going to win. Even some British coaches – within my earshot – said he was going to win the 200.
“Come the final I was in lane seven, he was in lane eight, and he knew I was not going to let him have the psychological edge over me. I took the attitude that I needed to be so far up the track coming off the bend that he wouldn’t catch me.
“But he did.”
For Wells, there was the consolation of the silver medal and a new British record. And, while he lost that race to his great rival, overall he had a winning record against Mennea.
“I only kept count of my races against him, not any other athlete. And I was able to say that I beat him more often in the 200 than he beat me.”
Of the occasions on which Wells did get the better of Mennea, the most celebrated was the Europa Cup final in Turin in 1979, the year before the Moscow Games. The Italian was a firm favourite on home ground but, on that occasion, it was Wells who timed his finish exactly to win by a very narrow margin.
“I think that was probably the greatest race between two European sprinters.,” said the British athlete, who is himself now 60. “It was the other way round from the Olympics race – I stretched for the line and beat him by two-hundredths of a second.”
Turin is in the north of Italy, where they do not always take too kindly to compatriots from further south such as Mennea, who came from the south-eastern province of Apulia. Certainly, Wells felt that among the 35,000 crowd that day were many home supporters who had been only too glad to see Mennea lose.
“I was walking off the track when I heard people calling my name from the stands: ‘Wells! Wells!’ So I looked up and they started giving me the thumbs up. They were Italians, shouting for me.”
Besides the regional rivalry which is so often a factor in Italian society, there was another reason why many of his compatriots felt cold towards Mennea. He would not cultivate friends in the sport, preferring to remain aloof. His own career was his over-riding interest. “A lot of people thought he was maybe arrogant and self-centred. But to stay at the top of the game you had to be very focused on yourself.
“But he was so cut off that maybe when he needed a bit of support it wasn’t there – he only had himself to rely on. I had Mrs Wells, who had pretty broad shoulders.
“I always treated him with high respect because of what he did as an athlete. He was probably one of the greatest sports- people to come out of Italy, which is saying a lot given some of the people they’ve produced.
“He was not the most liked, but he was probably the most respected. He was a great ambassador for Italian athletics, and I had a fantastic respect for the guy.”