Gold medallist whose 1976 Polish national record remains unbroken
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