Pietro runs a new show

Simon Turnbull says an old champion is giving his new role a golden lustre

Simon Turnbull
Saturday 12 September 1998 23:02
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IT TOOK 17 years and the superman powers of Michael Johnson to remove the name of Pietro Mennea from the world record book. In Italy this weekend it is back in the headlines once again. The Serie A football season kicks off this afternoon with a cluster of new star names - Ariel Ortega at Sampdoria, Marcelo Salas and Ivan de la Pena at Lazio.

None, however, can match the golden lustre of Mennea. The sinewy speed merchant who ghosted past Allan Wells to snatch the Olympic 200m title in Moscow in 1980, and who held the 200m world record from 1979 to 1996, happens to be one of the men behind the success story of Salernitana.

The pride of Salerno, 50km south of Naples, Salernitana return to Serie A today after an absence of 51 years. They do so, appropriately enough, on an Olympic stage - against Roma in the Stadio Olimpico. Mennea, a member of the track and field azzurri in five Olympic Games, is the general director of Salernitana. He is no token figurehead. A qualified lawyer and Doctor of Commerce, he manages the club as a business. And a pretty good job he is making of it.

More than 30,000 seats in the 38,000-capacity Stadio Arechi have been sold to season-ticket holders, thanks not just to Salernitana's success as champions of Serie B with a record 72 points last season but to Mennea's nous too. He has marketed the club as a flagship of the south - much as he was projected himself. Mennea, in a running career that stretched from 1969 to 1987, was known as La Freccia Del Sud - the arrow of the south. He has also hit the target with the introduction of a match-day creche at the Stadio Arechi.

"If we're successful at the top of the club we'll be successful on the field," Mennea said. "Our first objective has to be salvation. We have to stay north of the great divide, out of Serie B. If Napoli come straight back up to Serie A next season just imagine what kind of interest the local rivalry would generate. It would be great for us."

Mennea acquired his business acumen as a 16-year-old in his home town, Barletta, directly opposite Salerno on Italy's south-east coastline. He raced against cars for wagers. "It was me against the car over 50 metres," he recalled. "I got a million lira for every win." He got nothing other than a World Student Games gold medal, though, when he touched his highest speed, in Mexico City in 1979. Stopping the clock at 19.72sec, Mennea relieved Tommie Smith of the 200m world record. He held it until 1996, when Johnson ran 19.66 at the US Olympic trials.

Since hanging up his spikes, Mennea has admitted using human growth hormone during his running career. Though the practice was not banned at the time by the International Amateur Athletic Federation, it was still a case of Mennea behaving badly, as it were. At 46, however, the former golden boy of Italian sport is relishing his return to the national spotlight.

"I don't run at all now," he said, patting his spreading waistline. "My life is different. Running is in the past for me." Running in the actual motive sense, that is. As from this afternoon, running a Serie A football club will be both the present and the future for Pietro Mennea.

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