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Farewell to Allan Wells' great rival: Pietro Mennea, still the European 200m record holder, dies

Italian who pipped Brit to the title at Moscow Olympics passes away after long illness

Italy was in mourning today and Allan Wells was in a state of some shock following the news of Pietro Mennea's death at the age of 60. The pair fought an epic battle for the 200m title at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, the Italian Freccia del Sud – arrow of the south – edging past the powerful Flying Scot in the last few metres to deny Wells the sprint double by a tantalising 0.02sec.

"I've only just heard," Wells told The Independent, taking his lunchtime break at the University of Surrey, where the Olympic 100m champion of 33 years ago works as a systems engineer. "My son's just sent me an email. It's sad news and a shock that he's died so young. We're both the same age.

"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."

It was at the World Student Games in the thin air of Mexico City in 1979 that the sinewy Mennea smashed the 200m world record that Tommie Smith, of the Black Power salute fame, set in the same stadium at the 1968 Olympics, 19.83sec. The man from the south-eastern Italian coastal town of Salerno clocked a stunning 19.72sec.

In fact it took 17 years – not 15 – and the superman powers of Michael Johnson to beat it, the Texan phenomenon running 19.66sec at the US Olympic trials in 1996. To this day, though, Mennea's 19.72sec stands as a European record.

His international career stretched from 1969 to 1987 and he competed in five Olympic Games for the track and field azzurri, also winning a 200m bronze medal in Munich in 1972 behind the great Soviet Valeriy Borzov and Larry Black of the US. Such was his standing in his homeland – where he worked in his later life as a lawyer, general director of the football team Salernitana and served as a member of the European Parliament – his body will lie in state at the Italian Olympic Committee headquarters in Rome.

The Italian Olympic Committee said that Mennea had died in hospital in the Italian capital after a long battle against an as yet incurable disease. It was also announced that the Italian football team would wear black armbands and observe a minute's silence at their friendly match against Brazil in Geneva last night, and that there would be a minute's silence at all sports events across Italy this Sunday.

Mennea's popularity was never dented by his admission after he hung up his spikes that he had used human growth hormone during the 1984 season, four years after he deprived Wells of a second Olympic gold. The practice was not officially banned at the time, so strictly speaking it was merely a case of Mennea behaving badly, as it were.

Wells, for one, has no axe to grind on that score. "I didn't know about that, to be honest," he confessed. "Human growth hormone was always one of these mystical things talked about but this is certainly not the time to bring it up.

"I would not in any way whatsoever tarnish Mennea with anything to do with illegal substances. My thoughts are with his wife and relations. This is a terrible time for them. He has been taken before his time."

As an EU minister, Mennea actually campaigned for tougher sanctions against dopers in sport. "We need to remove the anti-doping responsibility from sports bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and introduce a criminal law," he said at the time.

Asked about "the drugs situation" in his own competitive days, he said: "Doping was 'done' back then. It originated in the 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. Doping may create grand results on one level, but it certainly doesn't bring longevity to an athlete's career."

Mennea will always be remembered for the longevity of his world record, and for ghosting up on the inside of Wells to snatch that 200m gold in Moscow. The latter was revenge for a defeat on home ground the year before.

"I think my greatest race against him was actually the European Cup 200m in Turin in 1979," Wells said. "I remember thinking, 'This is going to be the most difficult thing on God's earth, trying to beat him in his own country.' But I did it – by 0.02sec.

"When he beat me in Moscow I remember his mother saying, 'My son beat that big bull.' I'm not sure what she meant by that but I took it as being respectful."