PASSINGS: Pietro Mennea

Pietro Mennea, 60, an Olympic sprint champion from Italy who held the world record in the 200 meters for 17 years, died Thursday at a hospital in Rome, the Italian Olympic Committee said. The cause was not disclosed.

On Sept. 12, 1979, Mennea, competing in the World University Games at the high altitude of Mexico City, set the 200 world record of 19.72 seconds. He broke U.S. sprinter Tommie Smith's record of 19.83, set on the same track at the 1968 Olympics.

Mennea's record stood until Michael Johnson ran 19.66 on June 23, 1996, at the U.S. Olympic trials. Johnson lowered the mark to 19.32 at the Atlanta Olympics later that year. Usain Bolt of Jamaica holds the current 200 record of 19.19, set in 2009.

In 1980 Mennea won gold in the 200 and bronze in the 1,600-meter relay at the Moscow Olympics — which the United States and 64 other countries boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He also won a bronze medal in the 200 at the 1972 Munich Games.

Years after retiring from track competition, Mennea admitted using human growth hormone, which was not then a banned substance.

Born June 28, 1952, in Barletta in Italy's Puglia region along the Adriatic Sea, Mennea was nicknamed the Arrow of the South. As a fleet teenager, he challenged automobile drivers to races. "It was me against the car over 50 meters," he said in a 1998 interview with London's Independent newspaper. "I got a million lira for every win."

When he competed in the 1980 Olympics, the 28-year-old Mennea had just received a doctorate in political science.

After his track career, he worked as a lawyer, university professor, sports agent and soccer team manager. He was also a member of the European Parliament.

-- Los Angeles Times staff and wire reports

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