Szewinska, Irena : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Szewinska, Irena

Irena Kirszenstein

track and field

Country Represented:

Years Competed:
1964, 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980

Medals Received:
gold, silver, bronze

Olympic Info:
One of the most successful Olympic track and field athletes ever, Szewinska won medals in four consecutive Olympics, a feat never before accomplished by any runner (she won an astounding total of seven medals during her career; tied for the most medals ever won by a female track athlete). At the 1964 Tokyo Games, the 18-year old Polish star won a gold medal as a member of the 4x100-meter relay team, which set the world record with a time of 43.6 (Irena ran the second leg). She also competed in the 200-meter, winning the silver medal with a time of 23.1 (the gold medal winner ran 23.0 and set an Olympic record). Szewsinska showed her versatiltiy by also competing in the long jump, winning the silver medal with a leap of 21'7 3/4".

Szewinska competed in another four Olympiads for Poland. At the 1968 Mexico City Games, Irena failed to qualify for the finals in the long jump (her best leap in the preliminaries was 6.19-meters and she needed 6.35-meters to reach the finals), but medaled in her two running events. In the 100-meter, she won her heat in the first three rounds (and tied the world record of 11.1 in the second round), and then finished third in the final (11.19) to capture the bronze medal. In the 200-meter, Szewinska was even more successful as she won her preliminary heat (23.2) and then won the gold medal by winning the final in 22.5, setting another world record.

At the 1972 Munich Games, Irena competed strictly in the 200-meter, and won another medal. After winning her first round heat (23.37) and semifinal (22.79), Irena finished third in the final (22.74) to win the bronze medal. Szewinska competed in two more Olympiads and won only one more medal, although it was in impressive fashion. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, she competed in the 400-meter and after setting the Olympic record in her semifinal (50.48), Szewinska took the gold medal by setting a new world record (49.29), winning the final by an impressive 10 meters!

Szewinska's final Olympic appearance was at the 1980 Moscow Games where she ran in the 400-meter race. She finished third in her preliminary heat in 52.57 and advanced to the next round, but an achilles heel injury prevented Irena from competing past the semifinals. She retired from international competition following the Games as one of the greatest runners in history. Irena is currently a member of the IOC (International Olympic Committee).

Career Highlights:
One of the greatest female track and field athletes in history, the versatile Szewinska competed in the sprints and long jump and dominated her competition for fifteen years. The first woman to hold world records in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter at the same time, Irena was also the first woman to break 50 seconds in the 400-meter (49.9 in 1974). She was Poland's Athlete of the Year in 1965 (at the age of 19), tying the 100-meter world record (11.1) that year. Kirszenstein-Szewinska also set the World record in the 200-meter (22.0), and the 400-meter world record (49.0) in 1977 at the World Championships. In the 1970s, Irena was a dominating force in women's track and field, winning 38 consecutive 200-meter races from 1973-1975, and 36 consecutive 400-meter races from 1973-1978! She was UPI's Sportswoman of 1974, and was elected to the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.

Irena currently serves on the International Olympic Committee (she is a member of the Coordination Committee for the 2004 Athens Games), and the Women's Committee of The International Amateur Athletic Federation (track's governing organization). A 1998 Federation news release stated: "Irena Szewinska was a model athlete. First and foremost, she should be seen as a highly successful woman. First a top class student (she holds a master's degree in economics) then a wife, mother...Szewinska has succeeded in everything she has tried." She said of her tremendous career: "I have often been asked whether I wasn't sometimes bored with athletics. I have always replied 'no.' Sport is my passion. Together with my family, it has brought me all the joys of the world." Irena is a member of the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. May 24, 1946

Leningrad, Russia

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Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)
Jewish Sports Legends: The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, by Joseph Siegman (Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 2000)
New York Times, October 14-October 28, 1968
New York Times, August 28-September 10, 1972