Irena Szewin­ska

Gold medal­list whose 1976 Pol­ish na­tional record re­mains un­bro­ken

The Jewish Chronicle - - OBITS - BRIAN SACKS

WIDELY RE­GARDED as one of the great­est track and field ath­letes of all time, Irena Szewin­ska, who has died at the age of 72, was the win­ner of one gold and two sil­ver Olympic medals at the age of 18. She went on to win two fur­ther golds and two bronzes in sub­se­quent Olympic Games. She was the only fe­male ath­lete to win medals in four suc­ces­sive Olympiads, and the only ath­lete of ei­ther sex to hold world records over each of 100, 200 and 400 me­tres.

She was born Irena Kirszen­stein to Jewish par­ents in Len­ingrad (now St. Petersburg). Her fa­ther Jakub Kirszen­stein was an acous­tic en­gi­neer from War­saw, while her mother Eugenia came from Kiev. The fam­ily moved to War­saw in 1947. She be­gan com­pet­ing in ath­let­ics in 1960 at the age of 14. Tall and long legged, she demon­strated her po­ten­tial by win­ning three gold medals in the Euro­pean Ju­nior Games of 1964. One month later she con­tested the same three events at the Tokyo Olympics, plac­ing sec­ond to Mary Rand in the long jump, win­ning an­other sil­ver medal in the 200m and a gold as part of the Pol­ish 4x100m re­lay team.

In 1967 she mar­ried her coach, Janusz Szewin­ski, a na­tional level hur­dler.In 1968 Szewin­ska went to Mex­ico as world record holder in the 200m. Af­ter win­ning bronze in the 100m she pulled away from the field in the 200m to take her first in­di­vid­ual Olympic gold medal, beat­ing her own world record time. Still not fully fit af­ter giv­ing birth to her son An­drzej in 1970, she took the bronze medal in the 200m in the 1972 Mu­nich Olympics. In au­tumn 1973 she switched to the 400m event and was the first woman to break 50 sec­onds for the dis­tance.

She re­turned to the Olympic stage in Mon­treal in 1976 to win the 400m in a new world record of 49.29, a time which still stands 42 years later as the Pol­ish Na­tional record. At her last Olympics in 1980 she suf­fered a mus­cle strain that brought an abrupt end to her com­pet­i­tive ca­reer.

Szewin­ska’s sport­ing achieve­ments also in­cluded five Euro­pean cham­pi­onship gold medals (plus five other medals) and un­bro­ken se­quences of 38 vic­to­ries over 200m and 36 over 400m. She set eight in­di­vid­ual world records and par­tic­i­pated in two fur­ther re­lay world records.

Af­ter bring­ing her com­pet­i­tive ca­reer to a close, Szewin­ska took an ac­tive role in sev­eral sport­ing and po­lit­i­cal or­gan­i­sa­tions. She was the pres­i­dent of the Pol­ish Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion for 12 years from 1997. As a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee, she was a mem­ber of the

Irena Szewin­ska wins the 400 Me­tres at the 1976 Olympic Games in Mon­treal, Canada team check­ing prepa­ra­tions for the Olympic Games in 2004, 2012 and 2020. In 2005 she was elected to the In­ter­na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Ath­let­ics Fed­er­a­tions (IAAF) Coun­cil and was a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the IAAF Hall of Fame. Szewin­ska died af­ter a long bat­tle with can­cer. The Olympic flag at the IOC Head­quar­ters in Lau­sanne was low­ered for three days in her hon­our. She is sur­vived by her hus­band Janusz and their sons, An­drzej and Jaroslaw.


Irena Kirszen­stein Szewin­ska: born May 24, 1946. Died June 29, 2018

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