Irena Szewinska, a Polish sprinter who dominated women’s athletics for two decades, winning seven Olympic medals, and who later became a member of the International Olympic Committee, has died at 72.
Szewinska’s husband and former coach, Janusz Szewinski, said his wife died shortly before midnight Friday in a Warsaw hospital after a battle with cancer.
The Polish news agency PAP on Saturday described Szewinska as the most famous athlete in Polish sports history.
Polish President Andrzej Duda remembered her as the “First Lady of Polish sport,” saying her death was “a great loss and great sadness.”
Thomas Bach, president of the IOC, said the “entire Olympic family is in deep mourning” and that the Olympic flag would be lowered at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, for three days in her honor.
“With her gentleness and modesty, she was a real role model, dedicating her whole life to sport. As such, she inspired athletes and women around the world,” Bach said. “I personally experienced this over many years and I will always have fond memories of the time we spent together.”
Szewinska competed in five Olympics, winning gold medals in the 400-meter relay in 1964, in the 200 meters in 1968 and the 400 meters in 1976. She was also a 10-time world record holder in the 100, 200 and 400 meter races.
She was born Irena Kirszenstein on May 24, 1946, in the Russian city of Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, to a Polish-Jewish family. The family returned to Poland when she was still a child.
At her last Summer Olympics in 1980 in Moscow, she suffered a muscle strain that ended her Olympic career.
At the time, with her seven medals, she tied the record of Australian Shirley Strickland de la Hunty for most Olympic medals won by a woman.
Szewinska became an IOC member in 1998. In 2012, she was among the first inductees to the International Association of Athletics Federations Hall of Fame.
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