CENTURIES from now, history may describe Pietro Mennea, who died last week, as the last Caucasian to hold a world sprint record.

The Italian, who denied Scotland's Allan Wells the Olympic double in 1980 by the narrowest of margins, reached life's finish line all too quickly, at the age of 60.

I detest racism, and believe skin colour is irrelevant except perhaps when commenting on sprinting, simply because that discipline has become the exclusive preserve of Afro-Caribbeans, rendering Caucasians such endangered species status that it once prompted Muhammad Ali to ask Mennea how the fastest man on Earth "could possibly be a white man?"

Mennea responded: "I'm blacker than you on the inside."

So in that spirit of respect we will cautiously bestow on the Italian the designation of greatest white sprinter, and in so doing, underpin Wells' niche in the pantheon.

In 1979, Mennea set a world 200 metres record of 19.72 seconds at altitude, in Mexico City. The time he surpassed had been set there 11 years earlier by the iconic Tommie Smith, in an Olympic final courageously made into a political statement by his so-called "Black Power" demonstration.

The quality of Mennea's record can be gauged by its survival for 17 years, until Michael Johnson beat it (19.66) in the 1996 US Olympic trials. The Texan lowered it again in the Atlanta Games to 19.32 and Usain Bolt trimmed that by two-hundredths to take Beijing gold in 2008. The Jamaican now holds it at 19.19. But the 200m mark which Mennea set in 1979 remains the oldest European men's record.

Since such world data was first kept in 1866, Mennea's near-17-year reign has proved the longest of all. The last Briton to hold a world sprint best was Peter Radford, timed at 20.5 for 220 yards (201.7 metres) on cinders, at the Staffordshire County Championships in 1960.

So just how good was Mennea?

The world 100m and 200m records (9.58 and 19.19) are held by Bolt. A total of 75 people have run under 10 seconds. Just one of them, Christophe Lemaitre (9.92) is white, and is ranked only 34th. Afro-Caribbeans are genetically endowed with more fast-twitch muscle fibres, goes the notion. Hence, their superiority.

The Frenchman's 200m status is better: 15th of the 45 to have gone below 20.00. Only he, Mennea, and the convicted Greek doping offender, Kostadinos Kenteris, are white.

In London 2012, Lemaitre became only the fifth Caucasian to reach the 200m final since 1984. Mennea reached four successive Olympic finals, a feat matched by no other sprinter at either distance. His best 100m was 10.01, also in Mexico City.

At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Mennea was favourite as world 200m record-holder, yet he caught Wells only 10m from the line, covering the last 100m in 9.38, winning with 20.19 to 20.21. The Italian had failed to reach the 100m final and so was the fresher. Since Wells won the 100m there, no Caucasian has featured in an Olympic 100m final.

Wells had beaten Mennea on home soil to take the 1979 European Cup 200m title in Turin. Just weeks later the still-smarting Italian set his historic mark at the World Student Games in Mexico. Slightly built, he was dwarfed by the Scot's bull-like physique and Mennea's mother nicknamed him "The Beast", which Wells says he considers a compliment.

Mennea was evolutionary in his training, launching himself with a giant rubber band, slung between stakes. He would back into the band, stretching it across his gluteus until he could push back no further, before launching himself, thus embedding in muscle memory the experience of the greatest possible leg-speed. The 1972 Soviet double Olympic sprint champion, Valerii Borzov, had done this before him, but the secretive nature of the USSR training regime suggests Mennea's coach, Carlo Vittori, discovered it independently.

More controversially, following his fourth Olympic 200m final appearance in 1984, Mennea admitted to having used human growth hormone. The International Olympic Committee did not add this to the list of banned substances until 1989, so what he did was legal. Yet it may have been at a cost.

We will never know for sure why Mennea succumbed to cancer. What we do know is that numerous research papers in several countries over more than a decade have identified growth hormone as a potential cause of various cancers. It's also known that people with reduced hormone function can be resistant to malignancies and that blocking hormone receptors is routine treatment for certain types of cancer.

As a member of the European parliament, Mennea latterly lobbied for dope-testing to be conducted independently in sport. Had this great champion seen a light too close to home? Again, we will never know.

When growth hormone was first used as a treatment more than 50 years ago, long-term side effects were unknown. It emerged that they also included the progressive brain disease, CJD. Production was synthesised to eliminate the risk. But the potential long-term effects of any drug is why anti-doping authorities must stay vigilant and ahead of this deadly game.