A portrait of Irena Szewinska (Getty Images) © Copyright
Iaaf News

Szewinska, athletics legend and administrator, dies

The IAAF is deeply saddened by the news that legendary Polish sprinter Irena Szewinska, widely considered one of the most successful and multi-talented athletes of all time, died on Friday (29) in Warsaw after a long battle with cancer. Szewinska, a five-time Olympian who set ten world records and served as an IAAF Council Member, was 72.

"Irena inspired a generation of women in Poland and around the world into athletics," said IAAF President Sebastian Coe. "She was a national hero and my friend. Her loss will be felt the world over."

Born in Leningrad in 1947 to a Ukrainian mother and Polish father, the family moved to Warsaw the following year when her parents completed their studies and took to athletics early on. She made her international debut at the 1964 Olympics Games in Tokyo where, as an 18-year-old competing under her maiden name of Irena Kirszenstein, she was part of Poland's victorious 4x100m relay team and took silver medals in the 200m and long jump.

Four years later, at the Olympics in Mexico City, she won the 200m in world record time and took bronze in the 100m. In 1972 she added to her medal collection with another bronze, this time over 200m.

 

Irena Szewinska en route to 1976 Olympic 400m gold in Montreal (Getty Images)Irena Szewinska en route to 1976 Olympic 400m gold in Montreal (Getty Images) © Copyright

 

However, in 1973 she discovered the event with which she is most usually associated. Switching to the 400m, she quickly proved adept at the new distance. The following year she became the first woman to break 50 seconds over one lap of the track.

She won the 400m at the 1976 Olympic Games in another world record of 49.28, a performance that remains the Polish national record to this day. Between 1974 and the 1978 European Championships, she won 34 consecutive 400m finals. Among her most famous victories during this period came at the inaugural edition of the IAAF World Cup in Dusseldorf in 1977 when she defeated Marita Koch in a dramatic homestretch battle.

 

Irena Szewinska in action at the 1977 IAAF World Cup (Getty Images)Irena Szewinska in action at the 1977 IAAF World Cup (Getty Images) © Copyright

 

In addition to her Olympic successes, on the continental stage she won five gold medals at the European Championships, including a triple triumph in the 200m, long jump and 4x100m in 1966.

The curtain came down on her stunning career at the 1980 Olympics when she was eliminated in semi-finals after pulling a muscle.

Szewinska broke 10 world records and is the only athlete, male or female, to have held a world record in the 100m, 200m and 400m events.

Upon her retirement, Szewinska remained active in the sport at the highest levels.

In 1981 she joined the Polish Athletic Association (PZLA) and in 1984 was elected to the IAAF's Women's Committee, the initial steps in her career as an administrator that eventually included council membership in European Athletics in 1995, ascending to the presidency of the PZLA in 1997, and membership to the International Olympic Committee in 1998. In 2005, Szewinska was elected as the third woman on the IAAF Council. She also served as Vice President of the Polish Olympic Committee.

 

Irena Szewinska - IAAF Centenary Historic Exhibition (IAAF)Irena Szewinska - IAAF Centenary Historic Exhibition (IAAF) © Copyright

 

Athletes and colleagues inspired by Szewinska both on and off the track have been paying tribute and sharing their fondest memories, IAAF President Coe among them.

"One of my abiding memories of Irena in recent years was taking the IOC coordination commission on a visit to the London 2012 Olympic Park early in its construction," Coe said.

"Behind the safety fence work continued as the team explained where the venues would emerge. We suddenly noticed that work had stopped and a large group of construction workers headed towards us. We all smiled ready to shake hands, but they ignored the rest of us and made a beeline for Irena. Our large polish workforce instantly recognised a national hero in our small corner of London and she stayed and talked to each and everyone of them."

A memorial service will be held on Thursday 5 July with a mass at the Polish Army Field Cathedral in Warsaw at 13:00 (CET) with the funeral at 14:45 (CET) at the Powązki Military Cemetery. Among the dignitaries present will be Polish President Andrzej Duda.

Bob Ramsak for the IAAF