50 Golden Moments: Szewinska storms to a sprint double in Rome 1974

Irena Szewinska
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Irena Szewinska won a record 10 European medals in her incredible career, a feat which is yet to be matched or surpassed even though the European Athletics Championships have taken place biennially since 2010.

Szewinska also has the distinction of being the only athlete in history - male or female - to hold world records at the 100m, 200m and 400m and her remarkable range of abilities was on full display at the European Championships. In total, Szewinska won 10 European medals across six different events between 1966 and 1978.

Eight years after winning gold medals in the 200m, long jump and 4x100m relay at the 1966 European Championships, Szewinska stood on top of the podium again at the 1974 European Championships in Rome after achieving a brilliant sprint double against the athlete who had amassed an incredible win streak of 90 races between 1970 and 1974.

Szewinska would face the formidable East German sprinter Renate Stecher who had won a 100/200m double at both the 1971 European Championships and the 1972 Olympic Games. Stecher had thoroughly dominated the sprinting scene in the early 1970s and had also defeated Szewinska earlier in the season over 60m at the European Athletics Indoor Championships in Stockholm.

Not only was Stecher cresting an incredible wave of success across all distances, the East German was also four years Szewinska’s junior but the Pole, who had already won medals at the last three Olympics prior, was arguably at the height of her powers at the 1974 European Championships Rome.

In the 100m, world record-holder Stecher utilised her dynamic, bullet-like start to bound out to an early lead. Running from lane one, Stecher was still leading Szewinska after 70 metres but the long-striding Pole overhauled the reigning champion in the latter stages to win the fourth European title of her career. Szewinska also relieved Stecher of the championship record, winning in 11.13 to Stecher’s 11.23 with Brit Andrea Lynch taking a bronze from the outside lane in 11.28.

Szewinska and Stecher would also cross paths in the 200m and in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 - many of whom had come to watch home favourite Pietro Mennea win the men’s 200m title on the same evening - the Pole prevailed over the reigning champion again in a thrilling race.

The final played out similarly to the 100 metres with Stecher leading Szewinska off the bend but the Pole - who became the first woman to break the 50 second-barrier in the 400m earlier in the season - utilised her superior strength to reel in Stecher for her second gold medal of the championships. Her time of 22.51 ahead of Stecher’s 22.68 also smashed the championship record in spite of a significant headwind of 2.8 m/s! In more conducive conditions, Szewinska could have even challenged her world record of 22.21.

Szewinska added to her medal tally in Rome 1974 with bronze in the 4x100m relay but she wasn’t quite finished for the championships. She was timed at a sensational 48.5 on the last leg in the 4x400m final but Szewinska could only anchor the Polish team to fourth, although their time of 3:26.4 was almost three seconds faster than the previous championship record.

At 32, Szewinska had to give way to her younger rivals on her farewell European Championships appearance in Prague in 1978 but the grand dame of Polish athletics still came away with bronze medals in the 400m and 4x400m relay which brought her overall tally up to an unsurpassed 10 from the European Championships.

Szewinska bade farewell to competition at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, her fifth successive appearance at the Olympic Games. Due to a pulled muscle, Szewinska finished last in her 400m semifinal but this performance was a mere footnote on a glorious and illustrious career which began in earnest at the 1964 Olympic Games.