Mennea was pronounced dead in a Rome hospital Thursday morning following a long battle with an as yet unnamed incurable disease. He was 60.
A 14-time outdoor Italian champion in his preferred events of the 100m and 200m, Mennea was perhaps best known for setting a world record of 19.72sec in Mexico City in 1979 which stood for nearly two decades.
It beat the previous record set by American Tommie Smith, and remained unbeaten for 17 years – until it was bettered by another US sprint great, Michael Johnson, in 1996.
The following year Mennea went to the Moscow Olympics as the favourite for the 200m, especially given the absence of US athletes due to the American boycott to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Although he only reached the semi-finals of the 100m, the Italian edged ahead of Scotland’s Allan Wells in the final metres of the home straight to take a stunning gold in the 200m.
Paying tribute, Livio Berruti – the Olympic 200m gold winner at the 1960 Games in Rome – said: “Today we’ve lost a man who always competed with ferocity and determination.
“He epitomised resistence, tenacity and suffering.”
Such was Mennea’s popularity in Italy that a minute’s silence will be held prior to the Brazil v Italy football friendly later Thursday in Geneva, where the Azzurri will also wear black armbands.
Affectionately known as the “Arrow of the South” (Freccia del Sud in Italian), Mennea announced his retirement in 1983 but soon returned to win a 200m bronze at the inaugural World Athletics Championships in Helsinki that same year.
A year later he became the first person to appear in a fourth consecutive 200m Olympic final, at the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
He failed to make the medals and, after yet another retirement, returned to competition in time for the Seoul Games of 1988 where he failed to make the final in his fifth Olympics.
Mennea later admitted to using human growth hormone (HgH) to aid his performances.
At the time HgH was not yet a banned substance and it took the authorities until after 2004 to begin targeting its use through blood testing. Nowadays, HgH is on the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) list of banned substances.
Upon hearing the news of Mennea’s death, the president of Italy’s Olympic Committee (CONI), Giovanni Malago, returned to Rome from Milan where he had been on business and is expected to help organise Mennea’s funeral.
Over his career Mennea gleaned one gold and two bronze from the Olympic Games, a silver and a bronze from the world championships, three European titles and six Mediterranean titles.
His influence will also be felt outside the world of athletics.
After hanging up his spikes Mennea went on to help run the Italian football club Salernitana, which gained only its second ever promotion to Italy’s top flight in 1998 but enjoyed only a one-season stay in Serie A.
It coincided with Mennea’s election to the European Parliament, as a Democrat, from 1999 to 2004.
Unlike his athletics career, politics was less kind to the man from Barletta, on the heel of Italy’s boot, as he failed to be re-elected.