Pietro Mennea, an Olympic sprint champion from Italy who held the world record in the 200 metres for 17 years, died on Thursday. He was 60.
The Italian Olympic Committee said Mennea died in a Rome clinic, but no cause of death was given.
Mennea won gold in the 200m and bronze in the 4x400m at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, plus a bronze in the 200m at the 1972 Munich Games.
Mennea set the 200m world record of 19.72 seconds on September 12, 1979, at the World University Games at high altitude in Mexico City. He broke Tommie Smith’s record of 19.83, set on the same track at the 1968 Olympics.
Mennea’s record stood until Michael Johnson ran 19.66 on June 23, 1996, at the U.S. Olympic trials. Johnson lowered the mark to 19.32 at the Atlanta Olympics later that year.
“I never thought for a minute it would last that long,” Mennea said in a 1996 interview with The Associated Press. “I didn’t even think at the time I had run that fast.”
Usain Bolt holds the current 200m 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 and Italian records in the 200m.
CONI president Giovanni Malago said Mennea’s body would be laid in state at Olympic committee headquarters and that a minute’s silence will be held at all sports events in the country till Sunday.
Italy’s football team planned to wear black armbands for Thursday’s friendly against Brazil in Geneva, with a minute’s silence to be observed.
Nicknamed La Freccia del Sud (Arrow of the South), Mennea enjoyed a brilliant 27-year career in which the apex was in 1980 when he won the gold medal in the 200m final in the Moscow Olympics.
After his athletics career, Mennea worked as a lawyer, sports agent and as a member of the European Parliament. He didn’t spend much time reminiscing about his days as a sprinter, at one point publishing a book on sports law.
“It would have been easier for me to write about how to run the 200 meters, but I have moved on,” he said in the 1996 interview.
More recently, Mennea was an outspoken critic of Rome’s plans to bid for the 2020 Olympics, before Premier Mario Monti withdrew government support.
“We’re a nation devastated by a scary economic crisis. How could we think about proposing something like this now?” Mennea said in an interview with Corriere della Sera early last year. “Zero-cost Olympics don’t exist. The real priorities of the country lie elsewhere.”