Fifty years after Rome last staged the European Athletics Championships, we revisit some of the most memorable and incredible moments from the Roma 1974 European Athletics Championships, waiting for Roma 2024 scheduled from 7 to 12 June (buy your tickets here).

Distance running history for Holmen

Finland is a country renowned for its history in men’s distance running events but their sole gold medal in the distance events in Roma 1974 came in the inaugural edition of the women’s 3000m.
Previously no Finnish female had ever placed higher than sixth in a track final at the European Athletics Championships but Nina Holmen ran her way into the history books, breaking away from a pack of six and winning the title courtesy of a 61.9 last lap in 8:55.10 – the second fastest time in history at that stage.

Holmen out-sprinted a notable field which included the Soviet world record-holder Lyudmila Bragina (8:56.09) and Brit Joyce Smith (8:57.39) who was making her major international track debut at the age of 36 some 14 years after just missing out on a place on the British 800m team at the 1960 Olympic Games – which also took place in Rome – and 10 years before competing in the inaugural Olympic marathon in Los Angeles at the age of 46.

And the Holmen family legacy at the European Athletics Championships continued into the 2000s. Her son Janne won the marathon title at the 2002 European Athletics Championships in Munich.

Szewinska sparkles in the sprints

Eight years after winning three gold medals at the 1966 European Championships, Irena Szewinska stood on top of the podium again after achieving a sprint double against an athlete who had amassed an incredible win streak of 90 races between 1970 and 1974, including a 100/200m double at the 1971 European Championships.

But East Germany’s Renate Stecher had to cede both titles to Szewinska who was back to her best after trailing home in sixth behind Stecher in 1971. Szewinska began her remarkable week by winning her first European 100m title in 11.13 into a 1.2 m/s headwind before achieving the sprint double, reeling in Stecher in the home straight to win the 200m in 22.51 against a headwind of 2.7 m/s!

Szewinska added to her tally with bronze in the 4x100m before concluding her campaign with a blazing 48.5 leg in the 4x400m. Despite her best efforts, the Poles just fell short of a medal in fourth but Szewinska’s split was the fastest ever split recorded in a 4x400m at the time.

Susanj’s unstoppable sprint finish

The men’s 800m final in Roma 1974 featured three of the event’s most talented and mercurial exponents which made for an instant classic.

As British magazine Athletics Weekly reported: “Was there ever an 800m runner possessed with such devastating acceleration as Luciano Susanj? Was there ever such a brilliant 800m competitor, at the age of 18, as Steve Ovett? And was there ever an 800m star so hero-worshipped as Marcello Fiasconaro? The combined efforts of these three remarkable runners made this a race to remember.”

Buoyed on by a partisan home crowd, Fiasconaro powered through 200m in 24.5 and 400m in 50.1 – described by Athletics Weekly as a “do or die effort” – but these heroics didn’t do anything to blunt the finishing speed of Susanj who accelerated into the lead with 180 metres and opened up a winning gap of 15 metres for victory in 1:44.07. This remains the second fastest winning time in European Athletics Championships history.

In the scrap for the minor medals, an 18-year-old Ovett battled to his first major medal with silver in a European U20 record of 1:45.76 with Finland’s Markku Taskinen taking the bronze in 1:45.89. A forlorn Fiasconaro faded back to sixth in 1:46.28, his front running efforts unrewarded.

“Fiasconaro started too fast,” said Susanj in the aftermath of his victory. “I knew he couldn’t keep it up. I’m not ready for a world record now, but perhaps next year.”

Last on that day was West Germany’s Willi Wulbeck who would go on to win the inaugural world 800m title in Helsinki 1983.

Foster front runs to 5000m gold

It only took Brendan Foster eight seconds to hit the front of the 5000m in Roma 1974 in earnest and the Brit didn’t relinquish the lead. “It was front running at its best: positive, unflinching, challenging,” as described by Athletics Weekly.

Defying the 85 percent humidity and high air temperatures in the Italian capital, Foster ground his rivals into submission, including 1972 Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion Lasse Viren from Finland who bravely stuck with Foster before coming apart after the Brit cranked out an eighth lap of 60.2.

Foster’s winning time of 13:17.21 was a championship record and he won by six seconds from East Germany’s Manfred Kuschmann (13:23.93) and Viren (13:24.57) whose bronze medal in the 5000m was the sole European medal of his career which saw him win four Olympic gold medals.

Mennea roared to Italy’s first and only gold

After settling for silver in the 100m final behind reigning champion Valeriy Borzov, Pietro Mennea was roared to the 200m title from lane two in front of 60,000 pertisan fans who had packed into the Stadio Olimpico.

“I come from a small town called Barletta. They nearly tore it apart last month when I won the national championship. I imagine there will be chaos there tonight,” commented Mennea after winning Italy’s first and only gold medal of the 1974 European Athletics Championships.

In doing so, Mennea emulated his hero Livio Berutti who had sprinted to Olympic 200m gold in the same stadium at the 1960 Olympic Games. Mennea himself would follow suit by winning Olympic 200m gold in 1980.

The arrival of two of Italy’s greats

While it might not have been a vintage championships for hosts Italy who will be looking to better the five medals they won in 1974 this June, the international careers of two of Italy’s greatest female athletes began in earnest in the Stadio Olimpico in 1974.

Sara Simeoni won bronze in the women’s high jump final some four years before winning gold at the 1978 European Athletics Championships, equalling the world record of 2.01m. Like Mennea, Simeoni would go on to win Olympic high jump gold in 1980.

And only two months after celebrating her 17th birthday, Gabriella Dorio progressed through to the 1500m final – just the second time the event had been staged at a European Athletics Championships – where she finished a creditable ninth.

Dorio would also go on to win Olympic gold in her famed career although she would have a decade-long wait before clinching 1500m gold at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.