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Nurmi, Paavo (1897 - 1973)

Olympic champion, runner

Paavo Nurmi
Photo: Uuskuva 1967, Uusi Suomi Photo Archives

The 'King of the Running Tracks', Paavo Nurmi, winner of many Olympic events, is one of the best-known Finns abroad. His character traits included gritty determination and tenacity - but also some sharp edges that took their toll on his human relationships. Having grown up in straitened circumstances, Nurmi was both willing and able to exploit his sporting success financially.

In the minds of Finns the name Paavo Nurmi conjures up a figure from the first half of the 20th century who has with justification been called the 'King of the Running Tracks'; along with the composer Jean Sibelius and Marshal Gustaf Mannerheim, he is regarded as one of the most internationally famous Finns. Nurmi and his helpers 'ran independent Finland onto the map of the world'. To the sporting youth of his era he was a model and idol without equal. His character and bearing displayed the traditional Finnish taciturnity, stamina and persistence - traits easy to identify with - but also some sharp edges and an originality that made him stand out in a crowd.

The dash from destitution

Paavo Nurmi was born in Turku in 1897, the second child in the family of the carpenter Johan Fredrik Nurmi. The father, who came from a crofter background in Loimaa, was skilled at his trade. He was by nature honest and straightforward, but also introverted and tough. These traits were passed on to Paavo, although the father-son relationship came to an early end when Johan died of haemoptysis in 1910. This blow led to even greater hardship for a family already familiar with poverty and need. The wages that Paavo's mother earned as a cleaner were inadequate, and thus - as the oldest surviving child - he was forced at the early age of twelve to work for his family's upkeep, first as an errand boy for a bakery and later as a filer. These straitened circumstances toughened the future runner's willpower and also accustomed him to an ascetic lifestyle. The family was religious, and Paavo had to attend church frequently as a child, though he did not like the experience much.

Bodily exertion at work - dragging goods carts up and down steep hills - and running round the block with other boys created the physical basis for his increasing fitness as a runner. He was a good pupil whose his average mark at primary school was outstanding, but his home environment was not exactly conducive to continued education. Perhaps this state of affairs also affected Nurmi's psychological development: he became increasingly solitary and reserved and was already exhibiting the awkward character traits of his later life - but also the exceptional mind set that came to fruition during the peak years of his running career in the form of a happy blend of willpower, intelligence and a systematic approach to problems.

As Nurmi became ever more seriously involved in running, he joined the Turku Sports Association (Turun Urheiluliitto) in 1914. In the same year he won his first competitive victory - over 3000 metres - at the age of seventeen. Eero Sorjonen, who was in charge of the club, was already placing great hopes in the young man who "ran like Hannes [Kolehmainen]". The fact that a youth from a working-class background opted for a middle-class sports club showed that Nurmi was already thinking of success in competitive sport and not just of healthy exercise. The consequences for sport of the political tragedy of 1918 did later cause him to waver and to wonder whether he should change club. But he did not do so, instead becoming ever more firmly entrenched on the side of middle-class sport as he himself was transformed by circumstances into a 'capitalist'.

During the years of the First World War, Nurmi's development as a runner was somewhat slow. Probably the most important thing was that his passion for running survived, despite the tough conditions and the uncertainty of the future. His period of military service in 1919 - 20 marked a fundamental change in Nurmi's development into a top sportsman - something that hardly anyone expected. Lauri ('Grindstone') Pihkala, who had become one of the most influential figures in Finnish sport, initially regarded him with scepticism: Nurmi's rugged build, powerful chest and broad pelvis made him think more of a wrestler than a long-distance runner.

During his time in the army, Nurmi's training became more varied and systematic, and the extremely ascetic, vegetarian lifestyle adopted during his boyhood assumed more moderate forms. As a conscript Nurmi attracted attention by coming first in marches with a rifle on the shoulders and a sand-filled pack on the back by such a wide margin that he was even suspected of having strayed from the route. What he actually did was to run the whole way instead of marching. While the obstinate Nurmi had his problems with lower-ranking officers, he found favour in higher quarters and was given opportunities for independent training. Pihkala, who was secretary for sporting affairs at the War Office, arranged to have him transferred to the army's gunsmithing school, a move which provided him with better opportunities for training. Records on the running track came thick and fast, and inclusion in the training squad for the Olympics soon became a reality. In the Olympic Year 1920 he had already broken Finnish records during trials, and his first trip abroad got off to a splendid start with his appearances at the Antwerp Olympics in August.

On the way to the top - from Antwerp to Paris

At the Antwerp Games, Nurmi won silver in his first race, the 5000 metres. This was a fine achievement for a first-time Olympic athlete, though the main theme of post-mortems has been that Nurmi's lack of experience cost him victory. Having led at a cracking pace for most of the way, Nurmi was not able to match the final spurt of the Frenchman Joseph Guillemot, who ran surprisingly well for a soldier who had recovered from exposure to mustard gas. Nurmi took revenge on him in the 10,000 metres; on the advice of Hannes Kolehmainen he changed his pacing tactics, taking the Frenchman by surprise. Nurmi went on to win the eight-kilometre cross-country race, and he received another gold medal for the same event when Finland won as a team. He thus brought home no less than four medals, but Finnish sports fans continued to reserve their greatest adulation for the hero of the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, Hannes Kolehmainen, who crowned his career by winning the marathon in Antwerp. Nurmi was still doing his military service, and his great success resulted in his swift promotion to corporal and, at the end of his service, to sergeant. Patrons of sport also procured him a scholarship; this enabled him to do a three-year course in mechanical engineering at a Helsinki industrial college, where he obtained good results.

In the interval between the Antwerp and Paris Olympics, Nurmi concentrated on breaking records over distances of between 1500 and 10,000 metres. In 1921 - 23 he broke eight world records over various distances. Thus he left for the Paris Olympics as a well-prepared advance favourite whose career was now approaching its zenith. He first scored an overwhelming victory in the 1500 metres and then - just under an hour later - ran in the 5000 metre race. Running with tactical skill and casting glances at his by-now-famous watch, Nurmi did not allow the others to take him by surprise, keeping even his tough competitor Ville Ritola behind him. It was a tremendous achievement, but not an unexpected one: before the Games, Nurmi had tested this tight programme at home, setting world records over both distances with an hour between the two runs.

In the Paris Games the third gold medal came in a dramatic cross-country, run in merciless heat with a temperature of 36 degrees in the shade. Of the 39 starters fully 24 - among them three Finns - collapsed unconscious. Nurmi and Ritola were again first, but three men were needed at the finishing line. Finally Heikki Liimatainen appeared far away at the tail end as the last Finn into the stadium. To add to the Finns' agony, Liimatainen mistook the finishing line, turned too soon and began to shuffle towards the field house, before shouts and gesticulations turned him back to finish the job with wobbling knees. On the following day, while some of those who had fainted during the cross-country were still in hospital recovering, Nurmi again won a personal victory in the 3000 metre team event, in which mainly fresh men were participating, and was the strongest link in what was a superior Finnish team compared with those of other countries.

At the Paris Games, Nurmi would also have had a good chance of winning gold in the 10,000 metre race, but he missed out on this event. The team management ordered him to sacrifice himself in favour of Ritola, who went on to win. It has been claimed that the incident embittered Nurmi even permanently. In any case, soon after the Games, he was compensated when he set a world record for the 10,000 metres. There were huge celebrations in Finland, and the government initiated a project to immortalise the sporting hero in bronze.

In top condition, Nurmi went to the United States after Paris. There he achieved legendary results in the 1924/1925 winter season. He ran in 55 races, losing only one and breaking one off because of a stitch. Indoor track records underwent a thorough mopping up. The trip caused a sensation in the New World. Nurmi was treated as a great celebrity, even getting to meet President Calvin Coolidge. Stories about the 'Flying Finn' or the 'Phantom Finn' filled the columns of the newspapers, which cultivated spicy tales (concerning, amongst other things, Nurmi's eating habits) of the type: "he runs with a watch in one hand and a herring in the other". Financial experts believed that Nurmi had won a 400-million-mark loan for Finland with his running. Even then, there were already claims in the American press that Nurmi himself had earned fully $25,000 from his races, though no concrete evidence of covert professionalism could be produced. Undoubtedly the fact that Nurmi's tour turned into such a huge success greatly enhanced the self-esteem of Finnish Americans, especially as the splendid Olympic successes of Ville Ritola, who had been living in America for a long time, were still fresh in people's memories.

Career in a shallow dive - successes and problems

The American trip took its toll, however. The programme had become too full, and the overstressed Nurmi was no longer able to attain the peak condition that he had enjoyed during the Paris Games. Slowly but surely his career took a downward turn. While he did set one or two world records in 1926/1927, he also suffered a few defeats. His motivation was also affected by the onset of physical stress symptoms: rheumatism and Achilles tendon problems. The athlete's characteristic fear of overfitness also became ever more evident. He may of course have been exaggerating his moodiness and grumbling in order to fool his opponents. At the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam he was once more in splendid form, narrowly defeating Ritola to win gold in the 10,000 metres. Both competitors injured themselves in the steeplechase elimination but were able to take the top positions in the 5000 metres. Ritola won, and a stiff Nurmi very narrowly wrested silver from the two men's most dangerous rival, Edvin Wide, a Finn who had moved to Sweden. Spectators were treated to the unusual sight of Nurmi slumping exhausted to the ground after reaching the finishing line. In the 3000 metre steeplechase he could also only manage silver, being beaten by his fellow countryman Toivo Loukola, a specialist in the discipline. The steeplechase was a sideline for Nurmi, and the water jump in particular caused him problems. But the hunger for success had to be satisfied by a new discipline, as cross-country races were dropped from the Olympics after the dramatic events at the Paris Games.

After the Amsterdam Olympics, Nurmi set records in extra-long-distance races (15,000-20,000 metres, one-hour race) in autumn 1928. He also competed again in the United States and even seriously considered turning professional; but agreement was not reached on a contract. It was not until 1940 that he visited the USA again; accompanied by the new running star Taisto Mäki he went there to gain sympathy for Finland, which was then fighting a tough war.

As the 1930s approached, Nurmi's participation in competitions decreased. This was partly due to his concentration on extra-long distances, which meant longer rest breaks; like Hannes Kolehmainen, he was planning to end his career with an Olympic marathon victory. In advance of the 1932 Olympics, Nurmi once again reached top form; at the Olympic trials his overwhelming victory in the short marathon (40,200 metres) set an unofficial world record. The race was run on the road between Viipuri and Heinjoki. His experienced rivals attempted to tire out the first-timer Nurmi by setting a brisk pace at the start, but they fell into their own trap. When Nurmi reached the finishing line, the second-placed Armas Toivonen was almost two kilometres behind him, and most of the starters had dropped out exhausted.

But Nurmi - who described the run as "kids' stuff", though he had not previously run a distance of more than ten kilometres even in practice sessions - was fated to attend the next Olympics in Los Angeles as a tourist, and a lame one at that. Criticism emanating mainly from Sweden had arisen concerning Nurmi's covert professionalism, and matters came to a head over payments made to Nurmi during competitions in Germany. The International Amateur Athletics Federation, whose president was the Swede Edström, voted 13 to 12 to ban Nurmi from the Games. It was also a humiliating defeat for Urho Kekkonen (later President of Finland and at the time a leading Finnish sports official), who was Nurmi's energetic 'attorney'. In a towering rage, Kekkonen froze sporting relations between Finland and Sweden for several years. The international career of Paavo Nurmi, now already 35 years old, was at an end. He ran in national competitions for a further two years, bowing out of competitive athletics in September 1934.

One more moment of glory as 1952 Olympic torchbearer in Helsinki

Nurmi's own running career was over, but the 1936 Olympics were approaching, and his experience and knowledge were in demand. He was appointed to the Sports Federation's coaching committee and trained Finnish long-distance runners for the Berlin Games. "He behaved like a sergeant major bossing new conscripts around"; this was an apt description of Nurmi's approach to training. Though he participated only as a trainer in the 1936 Games, Nurmi was undoubtedly satisfied with the splendid successes of the younger generation. The public at large had their last chance to see Nurmi himself on the field at the Helsinki Olympic Games, when the 55-year-old carried the Olympic torch into the stadium. Chaos broke out even among the athletes lined up on the field, as people wanted to get as close a look as possible at the world-famous runner, still striding splendidly. It was later revealed that a lot of effort had gone into persuading Nurmi to carry the torch: the whole operation nearly ended in a fiasco when an overzealous policeman tried to stop the car carrying Nurmi from entering the stadium area; the driver forced his way past, fearful that the enraged Nurmi would carry out his threat to pack up and go home.

The total trainer

Nurmi won a total of nine gold and three silver medals in Olympic competitions. As a lone runner he broke a total of 25 world records over 15 different distances, and he set one more as a member of his Turku club's 4x1500-metre relay team in 1926. The large number of records is explained partly by the one-mile distance run in Anglo-Saxon countries, an event almost unknown elsewhere. In all, he won 20 Finnish championships over various distances, plus two in relays. He also won one US and two British indoor championships.

The secret of Nurmi's success lay above all in his supremely professional capacity for both physical and psychological preparation. He was like a machine which, chugging away in businesslike fashion, ground down opponents - often even in advance. Nurmi, who hated losing above all else, took uninhibited advantage of the psychological upper hand. As a younger man he unnerved his opponents with a cracking pace at the start. Another psychological explanation for this is the surmise that it was more a case of 'panic-like flight' and fear of the final spurt than of a deliberate display. Later in his career, when his strength had already declined, Nurmi matured into a clever and feared tactician who stuck close to the leaders as far as the final straight, changed his rhythm with a couple of 'gallop paces' and shot to the front.

Nurmi had undoubtedly also inherited appropriate genes for a runner, but he has never been considered as having any exceptional natural talent. His rise to become a great runner was helped by iron determination, an excellent tactical intelligence and - above all - a total method of training and preparation that he himself developed and tested, a method that has been called downright scientific. He was an avid reader of everything connected with his field, becoming acquainted, for example with the training guidelines contained in the memoirs of the great early-20th-century Scottish runner Alfred Shrubb, and in particular with the interval tables for Shrubb's famous world-record-breaking run in Glasgow in 1904.

To walks and long training runs, Nurmi added interval training based on the American model. His training was at its most effective during the peak year of 1924, the year of the Paris Olympics, when from April to September he did three sessions per day. First came a ten-kilometre morning walk with sprints, and then a wash and exercises. During the day he did about five kilometres of training by the clock, and in the evening a further 4-7 kilometres of running. He was especially fond of cross-country runs and particularly liked difficult tracks.

Through strict training Nurmi developed his own distinctive style - the 'hip rhythm'; pushing the hip forward resulted in a longer stride and made the trunk rock slightly back and forth. The methods that he used to lengthen his stride included running along the tracks behind a train, holding on to the buffer. The long-stride style - which also involved good use of the arms - made his running look elegant and lively, though it was deceptive and stressful for a person running behind him. The high step did test even Nurmi's strength, but with tough training he kept his reserves of strength in order and also developed an even breathing rhythm suited to his style. Of medium height, Nurmi was an average athlete as far as his physiological characteristics were concerned. He had a normal heart and pulse rate for an athlete, though the latter subject was also played up in America with the jocular equation: "the lowest pulse, the highest rate".

Observers have noted in Nurmi the same models of behaviour that can be seen in genuine top athletes regardless of time, country or discipline: he was reluctant to compete when he was not in top form; his tactics always involved when and where to strike at his worst rivals and at young challengers; his attitude towards minor, routine exhibition races was at best somewhat condescending; and he reserved his record-setting for small competitions organised specifically for the purpose. There have also been claims that he did not always give of his utmost, so that there would be opportunities to improve on his records in the future. This approach was later taken to real extremes by the Russian pole vaulter Sergei Bubka, who raised the world record centimetre by centimetre - and became a millionaire. In Nurmi's case hindsight has also led to much speculation on the dissipation of energies and on the severe consequences that might have ensued if he had indeed concentrated on only one type of race.

Nurmi, who had turned a leisure activity into an optimised lifestyle, was undoubtedly the most knowledgeable person of his times as far as preparing for endurance running was concerned, and this gave him an edge over his rivals. It should also be noted that in the 1920s, in the aftermath of the First World War, sporting standards in general were not particularly high; only a few European countries and the United States produced top-level endurance runners. Finland's high standards swelled Nurmi's medal collection through victories in team events that were later dropped from the Olympic programme. It has proved extraordinarily difficult to match the number of Olympic medals that he won; the American sprinter and long jumper Carl Lewis finally succeeded in the 1980s and 1990s.

From amateur to covert professional

Nurmi was a modern athlete in another sense as well: having lived in straitened circumstances, he was both was willing and able to exploit his sporting success financially. There was already whispering about 'sealed brown envelopes' back in the 1920s, but the sports authorities were still able to keep the problem of covert professionalism under the carpet by remaining silent. The idealisation of top-level sport and the Olympic Games had, after all, become a key feature of Finnish sporting politics - a means of enhancing the young state's international image as quickly and effectively as possible. And according to the Olympic idea, this meant 'pure sport' and the cherishing of amateurism.

As mentioned above, it was especially during the famous tour of America that suspicions were aroused concerning Nurmi's 'wallet runs'. Such rumours were anything but dispelled by the fact that his affairs in the United States were handled by the Finnish American Hugo Qvist, a well-known promoter of professionals who must have skimmed off a tidy percentage, though he died penniless. Fairly soon after his return from America, Nurmi quit paid employment, which suggested that he already believed that he could make a living from running and the attendant fame. Getting around also became easier, as he was given a Chrysler Six by an importer. Such a car was extremely rare in Finland at the time, even among middle-class urban families.

Interviewed by a newspaper after the America trip, Nurmi observed that there was a conflict between cherished ideals and "political advertising". He stated that in his view Finland should either do away with "the spooky fear of breaking regulations on amateurism" or return to "sport as healthy exercise" and abandon objectives unattainable by idealistic means.

The problem of 'shamateurism' became exacerbated in the 1930s and slipped out of the sports authorities' hands. Into the picture came thrill competitions featuring a few stars; rumour had it that large sums changed hands to ensure that the public got its money's worth. The right-wing Lapua Movement, with its emphasis on national spirit, joined hands with the commercialisation of sport. "Every Finn smiled when there was talk of the amateur status of Nurmi, Ritola and Purje." The debate was fuelled by the game of sporting politics, which fed on envy and needed a scapegoat - and who more suitable for creating a sufficiently large stir than Nurmi? With the refusal to include him in the Olympic squad, Nurmi, already in the declining years of his sporting career, lost one great opportunity for international success, but in the final analysis this hardly had any effect on the respect that he enjoyed. Since then, the amateur-professional problem has lost most of its significance, thanks to more flexible approaches. Its place has been taken by the issue of drugs, which constitute a thornier and problem from the moral and sporting viewpoint, because the deceit involved strikes directly at clean competitors - or at least at competitors assumed to be clean.

We shall presumably never know exactly how much Nurmi earned from his running. Plenty of anecdotes circulated, the most common being perhaps that based on the 'one mark per metre' principle; though in practice this was often a very cautious estimate. In any case, Nurmi was able to lay the foundation for his business career with money received for his running; and he could also afford to be 'generous' if necessary. It is claimed that no Finnish club suffered financial loss as a result of his races - come rain or shine.

From share dealer to building contractor

Nurmi quit paid employment in 1926, and from then on he earned a living from his running and from business activities. He had had no proper training for the latter and gained his knowledge through the same meticulousness and perseverance that he had applied to his running. Thrift and the money obtained from racing helped to get him started, and share transactions in particular increased his wealth; a reader of the Finanssilehti financial newspaper, Nurmi himself later stressed the importance of these transactions. His advisers included even Risto Ryti, the Governor of the Bank of Finland, who was interested in top-level sport.

Nurmi extended his business activities in the mid 1930s, becoming a building contractor and in 1936 establishing a men's accessories shop in Helsinki's Mikonkatu Street. He was lured into the construction sector by an old student friend, Oskari Tuominen, who had participated in the building of Parliament House. At the Colombia café, which he frequented, Nurmi also heard a lot about the building trade from fellow patrons. And it was as a building contractor that he did best: he built some 40 flat blocks in Helsinki, selling or renting the flats - though he rejected families with children. Concentrating on high quality, Nurmi ran the whole commercial side of the business from the back room of his accessories shop, in his own words keeping "the office in [my] wallet". Exaggerated meticulousness, distrustfulness and a straight-from-the-shoulder way of doing business that often sounded brusque occasionally caused problems in his work as a builder. His employees found it a strain that he arrived twice a day to check, for example, whether faulty bricks or too many nails had been used. In the course of time he learned to trust his workers more; he also sometimes gave them better pay than others, and he avoided bad squabbles with the unions. A peculiar episode was his attempt in the early 1950s to succeed in the shipping business as well, as the owner of the freighter Satu. But Nurmi clashed with the leader of the Seamen's Union, Niilo Wälläri. The violent dispute between the two pig-headed men was finally resolved, but Nurmi had had his fill of the shipping business.

Construction was a very lucrative business in Helsinki in the 1940s and 1950s because of the demand for dwellings associated with postwar reconstruction and the mass influx of people from rural areas. Nurmi, who made millions, was so successful as a businessman and contractor that in old age he complained about what he considered an unjust bias in the public respect accorded him. His sporting career began to feel like a burden, and he finally became so embittered that he entirely rejected the importance of sport in his life history. It was in vain that the sporting public waited for him to donate any of his money to the cause.

A neurotic person

With their self-centredness and their insatiable thirst for victory, great athletes are often 'difficult' people. This description fits Nurmi particularly well. He was basically shy, taciturn and unsociable, but as his career progressed and his self-confidence grew, a calculated aura of mystery became an integral part of these traits; and by emphasising this aspect of his character, he achieved a confusing effect on his fellow human beings - and especially, of course, on his rivals. The self-willed, distrustful and capricious champion frequently tried the patience of both sports managers and others. Communicating with him was hard work, as even 'Grindstone' Pihkala confessed. Nurmi's common interjection "Well, that's how it is, as I say" was without doubt easily capable of killing the other person's appetite for conversation. But when he was in a good mood and among a small group of acquaintances, Nurmi sometimes even turned into a pleasant companion who cultivated a sarcastic brand of humour; the image of the 'great non-talker' was mainly directed at the public. Nurmi's repertoire contained none of the flamboyant expressions of emotion and laps of honour characteristic of today's sport. He viewed the media with a fair degree of aversion, calling journalists' writing "balloon stuff", but this did not prevent him from appearing in the press himself as a writer of sports-related articles.

In his private life Nurmi was excessively thrifty and stuck to a strict timetable in which a deviation of even ten minutes from the normal was remarkably large. His mental relaxation came from listening to classical music; he himself played the violin. His leisure reading consisted mainly of non-fiction literature. Nurmi was never keen on politics, but as far as his outlook on life was concerned, he ended up perforce as a capitalist and a patriot. He admired America as a country where anyone could carve out his own destiny, and it is said that he once also stated that it was "better to be poor in the West than free in the East".

As far as is known, Nurmi had hardly any close friends, and with his character it was hard to succeed with women as well. At Hannes Kolehmainen's suggestion, Nurmi had attended a dancing school in the early 1920s and had become a skilful dancer. But in practice he regarded even dancing mainly as serving sport by "making the leg muscles more pliable", and women functioned more as 'training partners' than as conversation companions. Considered a confirmed bachelor, Nurmi caused a sensation in 1932 when he married a society belle from a Turku business background. After three years, however, his vivacious, tolerant wife had had enough of married life; though contact was maintained even after the divorce, as she continued to work as an entrepreneur in the clothing business. The couple's only child, their son Matti, also had a difficult childhood under his father's strict rule. In the 1950s Matti Nurmi was a middle-distance runner at the national level. As a 'hobby runner' he achieved good results, despite his father rather than thanks to him: in Paavo's opinion the boy did not have sufficient talent to succeed as a runner.

Paavo Nurmi admitted to suffering from nervous debility, claiming that the trait came from his mother. The nervous-system problems which he was able to store up and transform into the positive energy that led to his great success nevertheless took their toll, particularly in his relationships with other people. Later in his life, however, the tough outer shell began to soften, a process in which serious illness played a part. Cardiac and cerebral embolisms gradually worsened his condition. The bitter experience of losing control over his body and being forced to depend on the help of others weighed heavily on a man like Nurmi. It also manifested itself in a psychological change and erupted in fits of rage over the fact that sport had not guaranteed him good health. And indeed it was an irony that Edvin Wide - who had been a tough opponent of Nurmi but had remained in his shadow - lived to be 100, dying in 1996 after enjoying an active life almost up to the last and even avoiding the tuberculosis which he had so feared in his youth because of the havoc that it had wrought in his family. Fed up with his ailing health, Nurmi established a foundation bearing his name; it has distributed grants for research on heart disease and has also donated a heart ambulance to the City of Helsinki. But as his condition continued merely to deteriorate, Nurmi lost his faith in doctors as well.

During their competitive years, relationships between Nurmi and Ville Ritola were characterised by sullen glances rather than friendship; but in his old age Nurmi persuaded Ritola, who had lived in America for decades, to return home, even procuring a flat for him in one of his buildings. On Nurmi's initiative, Ritola was also granted a special State pension.

Nurmi's legacy

After Nurmi himself had quit competitive sport, his younger disciples continued the champion's series of brilliant successes for a number of years. War, however, was a tragic and stunning blow to the fostering of Nurmi's legacy, which in any case would have become less intensive. After the Second World War, Finnish endurance running went into a decline and was already at rock bottom by the beginning of the 1960s. There can be no doubt, however, that the cult surrounding Nurmi helped it out of this slump in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Nurmi himself intervened in the humiliating state of affairs in the autumn of 1966 when he publicly berated athletes for being indolent and too easily satisfied. This surprising outburst by the 'great non-talker' was widely assumed to have been prompted by the fact that in the 1966 European Championships, Finland had had only one representative in its traditional flagship race, the 10,000 metres; and he had dropped out.

During this period many of Nurmi's contemporaries and admirers were playing an active role in Finnish society, which was in a phase of strong growth and was developing into a modern welfare society. This society wanted international showcases - in top-level sport as well as other areas. Many people were attracted by the idea that this idea might be realised precisely in the field of endurance running, which had such an illustrious past. Renewed success required a great deal of work - especially the combining of many uncertain factors to produce a functioning system; but the work was done, and with some success. A trainer with the right methods for the Finns was found in the person of Arthur Lydiard from New Zealand, and talented runners were also found - athletes whose total dedication made them capable of going to the top at the international level: Juha Väätäinen, Lasse Viren, Pekka Vasala. Of these, Viren most resembled Nurmi as a runner. And Nurmi found the time to take an interest in him and to publicly praise the way that he used his pelvis, for example. Pekka Vasala won the 1500 metres at the Munich Olympics; a day before the final Nurmi sent him a message saying that he "must not allow that Kenyan, Keino, to get more than a metre or two ahead at any stage of tomorrow's race. Not at any stage. It does not matter about the others". The ailing old champion had had bitter words to say about the significance of sport for his own career, but this message showed that he was still capable of feeling the magic of competing and winning, as "something greater than life".

People of today already view Paavo Nurmi purely as a historical figure and as a mythical sporting hero. His great deeds and accomplishments are known and recognised. The passage of time has, however, already greatly weakened contemporary links with Nurmi. And conditions and attitudes have also changed greatly in the fields of culture and sport. Nurmi has increasingly become the object of the sort of impersonal, ritualistic adulation accorded to a great man, and this has an importance of its own from the viewpoint of national identity. The centenary of Nurmi's birth was an occasion for celebrations, especially in his home town of Turku; but whether the fostering of Nurmi's legacy still serves its original purpose - that of stimulating a renaissance in Finnish endurance running - is another question.

Veli-Matti Autio

Translated by Roderick Fletcher


Paavo Johannes Nurmi, born 13.6.1897 Turku, died 2.10.1973 Helsinki. Parents: Johan Fredrik Nurmi, carpenter, and Matilda Vilhelmina Laine. Wife: 1932 - 1935 Sylvi Laaksonen. Child: Matti, born 1932, businessman.

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