Olympic gold medallist Pietro Mennea is proud of his athletics achievements in the seventies and eighties but feels that Italy failed to build on the momentum generated during his era. Valhmor Camilleri met up with the Italian sprinting legend

Malta hosted an all-time athletics great last week as Pietro Mennea, the 200m champion in the 1980 Moscow Olympics, made a guest appearance at this year’s MOC Sports Awards, held on Wednesday at the Grand Hotel Excelsior.

Bolt has won a lot of races and he will continue to win but to become a legend, he must devote more time to people who are less fortunate than us

The 60-year-old, a lawyer by profession, was one of three Italian Olympians who attended the gala night, the others being gymnast Yuri Chechi and canoeist Antonio Rossi.

Mennea is without doubt the best sprinter Italy has ever produced. Nicknamed La Freccia del Sud (Arrow of the South), the Barletta-born sprinter is mostly remembered for the world record he set in the 200 metres in Mexico City in 1979. Mennea scorched the high-altitude track in 19.72 seconds to beat the previous best of 19.83 set by Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympic Games.

Mennea’s mark stood for 17 years before Michael Johnson set a new record when he clocked 19.32 in the trials for the 1996 Olympics.

Mennea enjoyed a successful 27-year career in which he won 14 Italian outdoor titles, two indoor, five gold medals in the Mediterranean Games and three gold medals in the European Championships. However, the apex of his career arrived in 1980 when he won the gold medal in the 200m final in Moscow.

“Winning the gold medal in the Moscow Olympics is a memory I will treasure forever,” Mennea told The Sunday Times.

“I was up against some of the best sprinters of that era. I just edged ahead of Britain’s Alan Wells, who had won the 100 metres event in those Games, and reigning champion Don Quarrie, of Jamaica, with only a few hundreths of a second seperating us.

“The Olympic gold medal was the fruit of years of hard work.”

Mennea is one of a few athletes who can boast of having competed in five different Olympic Games. Apart from Moscow, he also represented Italy in Munich (1972), Montreal (1976), Los Angeles (1984) and Seoul (1988).

“I ran in five Olympic Games and each time I faced different opponents,” Mennea recalled.

“I think one of my biggest assets was my longevity as an athlete. Today it’s very difficult for a sprinter to be able to compete at the highest level for almost 30 years. During my career, I always trained very hard without trying to take the short route to success,” he added in a clear reference to doping.

“I was lucky enough not to suffer a serious injury and that certainly helped me to enjoy a very long career.”

Mennea opined that, to become a great champion, you don’t just need talent.

“Talent is not enough to become a world or Olympic champion, you need other qualities,” he remarked. “In my career I always trained with a lot of passion and determination and my ambition to succeed has pushed me to the highest results in my sport.

“Dedication and passion are two essentials for any sportsman to succeed and I encourage all athletes to adopt these two qualities if they are to taste success.”

Among the many memorable moments he enjoyed in his career, Mennea will forever cherish his gold medal success in the 200 metres at the 1974 European Champ-ionships in Rome.

“The stadium that day was full,” he enthused. “There were 70,000 people behind me for the final and the atmosphere was electrifying. Certainly, I had very little difficulty to raise my performance as the warmth and support of the Italians pushed me to victory that day.

“Few sport attract such crowds today. When Bolt was in Rome last year, there were 40,000 people watching, so that tells you everything about the uniqueness of that day.”

Borzov duel

Looking back on his career, Mennea singled out Russian sprinter Valeriy Borzov, winner of a 100m and 200m double at the 1972 Munich Olympics, as his toughest opponent.

“Borzov was without doubt my greatest rival,” Mennea said.

“He was very tough to beat. He had a great physique and was a very strong sprinter. He was someone I looked up to as a young sprinter and there’s no hiding that trying to beat him was my biggest motivation.”

Since Mennea hung up his sprinting boots, Italy has struggled to produce another sprint champion. Asked for the reason for such dearth of talent, Mennea responded: “Unfortunately, we failed to build on the momentum generated during my era,” he said.

“Many of our athletes, unfortunately, do not have the passion and thirst for success that we had in our time. Nowadays, they are distracted by other things which are hampering their progress.”

Speaking about Italian sport, the last few weeks have been dominated by the controversy stirred by swimmer Federica Pellegrini who was quoted as saying that she was not interested in being Italy’s flag-bearer for the opening ceremony of next year’s Olympics.

The swimming world champion came in for some harsh criticism but Mennea does not agree with her critics.

“I think that the whole issue has been blown out of proportion,” Mennea said.

“Federica is at the peak of her career, so it’s natural that she is only interested and focused on the challenges ahead. I firmly believe that an athlete shows the highest respect towards his/her country by going to the Olympics, compete at the highest of their abilities and try to win the gold medal.

“So to criticise Federica for declining to be the flag-bearer for her country in order to concentrate on her races, is out of place.

“I feel that the ideal person for the job next year is fencer Valentina Vezzali who has now reached the twilight of a stellar career. She has certainly been a great ambassador for Italian sport and will be the right person to carry our country’s flag in London.”

Back to athletics, Mennea has no doubt that Bolt will continue to dominate the sprints for many years to come.

“Usain Bolt is a fantastic sprinter,” he said. “He has a great physique and can certainly continue to dominate the scene for many years to come. I’m sure that he will keep lowering his own records as he is a great talent.

“Bolt has said that he wants to become a legend in our sport but he still has a long way to go.

“Muhammad Ali is regarded as a legend in boxing as, apart from winning several title belts, he also did a lot of community work.

“Bolt has won a lot of races and he will continue to win but to become a legend, he must devote more time to the people who are less fortunate than us.”