Pietro Paolo Mennea 28 June 1952 – 21 March 2013) was an Italian sprinter and politician, who was the 1980 Moscow Olympic 200 meter champion, and also held the 200m world record for almost 17 years (the longest time ever in the race's history) with his time of 19.72 seconds, set in September 1979 - still the European record as of date.
Mennea, who was born in Barletta, started his long international athletic career in 1971, when he won the first of his 14 Italian outdoor titles in the 100/200. He went on to win 2 indoor titles at 60/400, along with 5 Mediterranean Games gold medals in 100/200. He competed at the European Championships with a third place in the 4 x 100 m relay. He made his Olympic debut at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, where he made the final of the 200m, his strongest event. He crossed the line in third place, behind Valeri Borzov and Larry Black. Three more Olympic 200 metre finals would follow later in his career.
At the 1974 European Championships, Mennea claimed the 200 m gold in front of his home crowd in Rome, while also placing second behind Borzov in the 100 m and the 4 x 100 m. After some poor performances in the 1976 Olympic season, Mennea decided to skip the Olympics, but when the Italian public protested Mennea went to Montreal. He did make it to the final of the 200 m, but saw Don Quarrie take the gold, leaving the Italian in fourth. He again placed fourth when the Italian relay team just missed out on the bronze.
In 1977 he finished second in the world cup 200, where a photo finish separated him from Clancy Edwards of the United States. He successfully defended his European 200 m title in 1978, but displayed his capabilities in the 100 metres by also winning that event in Prague.In 1979, Mennea placed first in the 100 metres and second in the 200 m behind Allan Wells of Great Britain in the European Cup. Later in the year, he took part in the World University Games, which were held on the high-altitude track of Mexico City. On 12 September 1979, he won the 200 metres with a time of 19.72. His time set a new world record, beating Tommie Smith's time of 19.83 set on the same track in the 1968 Summer Olympics.The record held for seventeen years before Michael Johnson broke it at the 1996 U.S. Olympic Trials To date, only eight athletes have recorded a better time over 200 metres than Mennea. His time stands as the current European record. He also held the low-altitude world record, 19.96, from 1980 to 1983, set in his home town of Barletta. On 17th August 1980, Mennea became the first sprinter to break 20 seconds for the 200 metres for the third time.
Entering the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Mennea was a clear favourite for the Olympic gold, in part because of the United States boycott of the Moscow Olympics. In the 200 metre final, Mennea faced reigning champion Don Quarrie, and 100 metre champion Allan Wells. Mennea drew the outer most lane with Wells in lane 7 to his inside. Wells got out to a blistering fast start and closed on Mennea within the first 50m. They approached the straight with Wells more than a two metre lead on Mennea with Quarrie in second and Silvio Leonard, hampered by his lane 1 draw in fourth. However in the straight Mennea gained ground and passed Quarrie and Leonard and at the very end of the race, just beating Wells, winning the gold by a mere 0.02 seconds. Later in the games, he was the anchor man on the Italian bronze medal winning 4 × 400 relay team. He also competed in the 100 metres during the games, reaching the semi-finals.
In 1983, in Cassino, he clocked a manual 14.8 seconds in 150 metres, a world best time that he held until it was bettered by Usain Bolt in Manchester in 2009. Mennea, known in Italy as the Freccia del Sud ("Arrow of the South", from the trains of the same name connecting Sicily to Milan), then announced his retirement, allowing himself more time for his studies. However, he came back from retirement soon, and won a bronze medal in the 200 m at the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki. A year later, he competed in his fourth consecutive Olympic 200 m final, becoming the first person to do so. The defending champion finished in seventh, and retired from athletics for a second time afterwards. Again, Mennea made a comeback, and competed in his fifth Olympicsin Seoul, but did not make it through the heats of the 200 m.
Mennea later admitted that he had used human growth hormone during his career. In an interview to an Italian newspaper in 1987 he told that in 1984, during the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, an American physiotherapist proposed a doping treatment to him. Back in Italy he tried two injections of human growth hormone but the crisis of conscience he got was so important that it induced him to retire from activity: "I realized that in my life I was looking for everything, except for that. Although the usage of the substance is banned in modern-day competition, it was not banned at the time by the IAAF
After his athletic career, Mennea worked as a lawyer and a sports agent. He was a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004 elected on the list of The Democrats, but failed in his attempt to be re-elected. He also lobbied for independent doping testing.
Mennea died on 21 March 2013, in a Rome hospital after a long battle with an unspecified incurable disease. He was sixty years old. On the day of his death, the Italian Railways announced that the new superfast train Frecciarossa ETR 1000, entering service in 2014, will carry his name.