(Reuters) – To those with only a passing knowledge of athletics it might have come as something of a surprise last month when America’s Track and Field News magazine named Polish sprinter Irena Szewinska as the greatest female athlete of all time.
However, in her homeland, and to those who followed the sport in the 1960s and 70s, it was an entirely natural recognition of a woman whose range and longevity made her stand out in a crowded field and who went on to become a respected administrator before dying from cancer in 2018 at the age of 72.
She is Poland’s most decorated Olympian and her list of achievements is nothing short of astonishing, starting at the 1964 Olympics when she won silver medals in the 200 metres and long jump and a glorious gold in the sprint relay. She also scooped up 10 world records over 16 years at the top.
Szewinska took gold in the 200m four years later, as well as bronze in the 100m – though the Games ended on a personal low as she dropped the baton the 4x100m relay.
Giving birth to the first of two sons and an ankle injury stopped her from training for a year, but she recovered for the Munich Olympics in 1972, where she won bronze in the 200m.
Four years later in Montreal she decided to skip 100m and 200m and focus on the 400m, having become the first woman to break 50seconds in 1974. In the final Szewinska won by a street in a world record 49.28 seconds – a time that would have been good enough for gold in almost every Olympics since.
“The combination of winning the Olympic gold medal and breaking the world record is exactly what everyone dreams about and what I managed to achieve,” she told a Polish TV documentary decades later.
Her fifth Games was something of an anti-climax as Szewinska suffered a muscle strain during the semi-final of the 400m in Moscow. She retired soon after with seven Olympic medals and a mountain of gold, silver and bronze from the European championships to her name.
She was later active in several sports organizations, including the Polish Olympic Committee and International Olympic Committee, to which she was appointed in 1998.
“Sport was a great adventure of my life, when I was an athlete and my fate was that I am still connected with sport. I am passionate about it, this is my hobby,” she said.
Szewinska, who was born in Leningrad on May 24, 1946 and moved with her family to Warsaw when she was a baby, topped the prestigious Track and Field News’ ranking points podium on calculations going back to 1956.
She remains the only athlete, male or female, to have held the world record over 100m, 200m and 400m and her one-lap best of 49.28 seconds is still the Polish record 44 years on.
(Additional reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Christian Radnedge)