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."

News
peoplePair enliven the Emirates bore-draw
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark episode 8, review
News
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband (R) and Boris Johnson, mayor of London, talk on the Andrew Marr show in London April 26
General electionAndrew Marr forced to intervene as Boris and Miliband clash on TV
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence