What would the Italian sprint great Pietro Mennea have thought about the IAAF World Relays, whose 2019 edition was staged in Yokohama, Japan over the weekend?
Sadly, we will never know first hand as the man who still holds the European 200m record of 19.72 from 1979 – which will celebrate its 40th birthday if it survives until 12 September this year – died after a long battle with cancer in 2013, at the age of just 60, just over a year before the inaugural competition.
However, it’s fair to say that he would have enjoyed the spectacle because although he is best known for his 1980 Olympic Games 200m gold medal his name is also indelibly linked to relays and his legacy includes some outstanding efforts with the baton in his hand.
It was on 21 July 1972, shortly before he was to take the Olympic 200m bronze medal in Munich, that 20-year-old sprinter became a hero in his home town of Barletta in the south east of Italy at the opening of the local track, which had been surfaced by European Athletics Green Inspiration partner Mondo.
In front of 12,000 expectant athletics fans – looking for the some fireworks after the Italian team’s 4x100m bronze medal at the European Athletics Championships the previous summer – a specially arranged 4x200m saw an Italian quartet pitted against and international team of US and Trinidadian sprinters anchored by the man who would take the 1976 Olympic 100m title Hasely Crawford.
However, the visitors were no match for the inspired Italians as dusk started to fall.
Franco Ossola, Luigi Benedetti, Pasqualino Abeti combined over the first three legs to give Mennea a slim lead at the final handover before the latter unleashed a blistering final stint – contemporary newspaper reports listed it as an unofficial 19.6 while other reports have subsequently given it as 19.8 – crossing the line in 1:21.5 to take 0.2 off the previous world record held.
It was to be the first of 272 world records or world bests to be set on Mondo tracks around the world but not be the last time Mennea would thrill his local fans in Barletta, regularly returning home after his exploits at major global and continental championships.
Three weeks after his Moscow triumph which was heralded not just in Italy but around the world, Mennea returned to the modestly named Stadio Comunale in Barletta and set up his starting blocks again, as he had done many times before in the previous eight years, on the Mondo track in his home town.
On this night, still in fine form after his triumph in the Soviet capital – which also came on a Mondo track –but dressed all in white rather than sporting the usual blue vest of the Azzurri, he flew to a low-altitude world best of 19.96.
With Barletta at sea-level nestling alongside the Adriatic Sea and with a wind-reading of 0.0 m/s many pundits thought this was intrinsically better than his world record in Mexico City the summer before and it was to be another 13 years before any European ran faster than Mennea's time that night.