mikepoloneckIt was interesting - and faintly depressing - to see the reports last week on the subject of West Ham United's imminent takeover of the Olympic Stadium on a 99-year lease. There was much discussion, as there should be, of the taxpayers' part in providing the large part of this new monetising opportunity for the club preparing to vacate from their Upton Park home, with the London Mayor Boris Johnson insisting that the taxpayer would be remunerated in the long-term through numerous alternative attractions at a venue whose ongoing vitality will now be assured.

But the scant mention athletics got in so many of the stories written on the news of West Ham's long-awaited conclusion made it clear where it stands as a sport in this country, for all the remembered triumphs of the young man who has been sharing the task of endorsing a broadband supplier with Usain Bolt, and his female fellow Brit who is now turning up on TV adverts with startling effect in the living room of unsuspecting "householders" along with golfer Rory McIlroy and F1 driver Jenson Button.

In the same week, we had seen the illustrious football teams of Italy - whose players were wearing black armbands - and Brazil stand facing each other before their friendly match in Geneva to observe a minute's silence in memory of an athlete. Football salutes athletics. Not something you often see, although of course this was not just any athlete.

britalyformenneaThe Italian and Brazilian football teams observe a minute's silence in memory of Pietro Mennea this week

For Pietro Mennea, the 1980 Olympic 200 metres gold medallist and former world record holder, was an extraordinary performer even when considered in the context of fellow Olympic champions.

Mennea hit a chord with people - and not only with fellow Italians, although for them the background of this lean and hungry sprinter from the southern tip of Italy, nicknamed Freccia del Sud (Arrow of the South) spoke persuasively. His countrymen and women revelled in the tales of how, back in his native Barletta, in Puglia, the 15-year-old Mennea would win wagers by racing over 50 metres against cars. They said he made enough money to buy a lot of pizza...

It was something about the emotion he showed, and evoked. Pictures of his face show him as desperate, almost hunted, as he ran. The impression was in contrast to the relatively impassive visage of his two primary rivals of the time, Scotland's long-jumper turned sprinter Allan Wells, whose power must surely have gained vital elements from the thought of what his redoubtable wife-cum-coach Margot would say, or perhaps do to him if he did not acquit himself well, and the Soviet god Valery Borzov, 100 and 200m gold medallist at the 1972 Munich Olympics who looked like a classical statue of an athlete which had come to life.

menneaat83wchampsPietro Mennea competing in the 200m at the inaugural IAAF world championships at Helsinki in 1983

It was something too about his honesty. Paradoxically, some years after he retired having competed in his fifth Olympic 200m event at the 1988 Seoul Games - uniquely he had reached four finals, securing a bronze four years before beating 100m champion Wells to the gold in Moscow – Mennea admitted that, in 1984, he had taken human growth hormone a substance which, while it is on the International Association of Athletics Federation's banned list now, was not then. Mennea, however, acknowledged that it was not a high point in his career.

borzov299goldThe god-like Valery Borzov takes 200m gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics, with Larry Black of the United States second and Pietro Mennea third

He nevertheless added: "I competed in five Olympic Games because I practised a manner of sport which was constant and correct. If I didn't keep to the straight and narrow I doubt I would have lasted so long. Doping may create grand results on one level, but it certainly doesn't bring longevity to any athlete's career."

In the year before he died, he spoke the awkward truth again, as he saw it, in condemning Rome plans to bid for the 2020 Olympics shortly before the Italian Government withdrew their support. "We are a nation devastated by a scary economic crisis," said Mennea, a political science graduate who was a member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004. "How could we propose something like this now? Zero-cost Olympics don't exist."

Even as he reflected upon the 200m world record of 19.72sec he set in winning the World University Games title in the thin air of Mexico City in 1979 - a mark which was not bettered until Michael Johnson ran 19.66 at the US trials on the eve of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics - Mennea was wryly honest. "I never thought for a minute the record would last that long," he reflected in 1996. "I didn't even think at the time that I had run that fast."

It was for his human, as much as his athletic qualities, that this arrow flew straight to people's hearts.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. To follow him on Twitter click here.