N is for Nurmi

Paavo Nurmi was a beast. There’s just no other words for him. Nine gold medals.

I feel great chagrin for crafting an alphabetically-driven post about running so soon after my discussion of the Kenyans and my rant about the Metric Mile. I considered finding another appropriate topic for “N” but … NINE GOLD MEDALS! (Twelve overall). And he would probably have won more, if he hadn’t–because crowds flocked to see a man considered perhaps the world’s greatest athlete–if he hadn’t been paid.

Sorry, gentle readers, that Nurmi starts with an “N.” Attention must be paid to the Flying Finn.

Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn,” the “Phantom Finn,” the fault-finding, fleet-footed, fractious Finn. Photo by RacingPast.com.

Mo Farah, Call Us When You Double Your Medal Count

Put Paavo Nurmi’s nine gold medals (plus three silvers) in perspective. Mo Farah, considered the greatest distance runner of our generation, only has four gold medals in distance running. Now, it is true that Michael Phelps does have 28 freaking medals, 23 gold. No one’s going to come close to that number. I’ll talk about that when I get to the letter “U.” But in his five Olympics, Phelps was able to enter in 30 races, including 12 relays. Swimmers simply have more opportunities for medals. Nurmi entered 12 races; 12 medals.

In fact, excluding Swimming and Gymnastics, Nurmi is still the Track and Field athlete standing at the top, with nine golds and three silvers. The nearest down on the list? Carl Lewis and Allyson Felix, with ten and nine medals, respectively.

What’s even more remarkable is that Nurmi could have won at least two more but was prevented from other races. He went unbeaten for decades. He set world records that lasted for years. At one point, he held the world record in the 1500, 3000, 5000, and 10,000 simultaneously. He probably would have single-handedly beat all the Kenyans.

1920 Antwerp Starts a Revolution in Time

Nurmi’s specialty was the 10,000m which was the first race he won, in the 1920 Antwerp Games. He had lost the shorter 5000 to Frenchman Joseph Guillemot a few days earlier but had his revenge by edging him out in the longer race. Guillemot got his own revenge by vomiting on Nurmi’s shoes at the finish, though it wasn’t his fault, really. According to The Complete Book of the Olympics, the race starting time was moved up that day three hours earlier, to 2:30, right after Guillemot had eaten a carb-loaded lunch. The reason for the move? The king of Belgium wanted to visit an art opening after viewing the race.

Early master of pacing, Nurmi would run according to the stopwatch. Photo from Yle.

After losing the 5000, Nurmi returned to his home town of Turku to find better ways to win. He became systematic in approach, investigating the interplay of timing and pacing. (He was going to engineering school at the time, graduating with a degree in 1923.) While his previous wins had occurred by setting a blistering pace in the first few laps that wiped out other racers, the competition was improving. He had to devise improved pacing strategies to stay ahead. He became the master of the stopwatch, and after 1920 created techniques to surpass others’ tactics. As long as he could beat the clock, he could win.

Armed with the stopwatch, he started breaking records. He is still the only athlete ever to hold world records across so many distances–including the mile, 5000, and 10,000–simultaneously. He also held the record for the 1500, 2000, and 3000 and would win cross country races as individual and team. Nurmi helped set a standard of distance excellence across Finland, and the entire Finnish team dominated races the way the Kenyans do today. It’s not the genes (see letter “K”) . However the Finns and Kenyans do share a few things: simple diet, a society that walked on a regular basis, and a culture that thrived on toughness.

It’s Called Sisu

Nurmi has been described as “introverted,” which is like saying a Finn has pale skin. Yet, even among the Finns, Nurmi was considered irascible, unusually silent. After his gold medal at the 10,000m in 1928, he picked up his sweats and walked off the track. Writers and runners Norman Harris and Ron Clarke described Nurmi as:

…Sphinx-like, apart, stern and silent, with uncompromising self-discipline, with white-hot ambition, bearing the closest possible resemblance, in athletics, to Napoleon Bonaparte.

From The Lonely Breed, by Norman Harris and Ron Clarke

People have speculated that Nurmi had a stern father who died when the runner was young or that his ambition made him cold and unfeeling. Sportswriters today would have called him “prickly” or “angry” and reclusive, as if that is a sin. For Finns, though, shunning interviews and being uncompromising in a search for excellence is a way of life. It’s called Sisu: intense, impassive and self-disciplined resilience under adversity.

The Paris Sweep of 1924

In the Paris Games of 1924, Nurmi won gold in all five events that he entered. They even tried to mess with him; didn’t work. He turned the distance races into an exhibition.

For example, French officials set the finals for the 1500 and 5000, races in which Nurmi was both favored, only a half hour apart. When he learned that the races would take place so close together, he practiced at home in Eläintarha Stadium and set new world records in both races. In the 1500, he was so far ahead of his nearest rivals that once his stopwatch confirmed that he was on record pace, he tossed it on the infield, slowed down to conserve energy for the latter race, beat the other three runners, and set an Olympic record. He picked up his watch and jacket and went back into the dressing room while the crowd cheered.

The cross-country races took place in intense heat (45 C/113 F). Half the entrants dropped out. Eight were taken away on stretchers; one entered the stadium confused from heat exhaustion. Nurmi ran to the tape, beating the nearest runner by a minute and a half. That was the last time cross country races were run in the Olympics. Nurmi picked up his jacket and went back into the dressing room.

The 10,000 was Nurmi’s favorite race. He had already won five gold medals. But the Finns wanted to spread the opportunity around across their entire team and decided not to enter him in favor of his countryman and rival, Vilho Ritola (who also has 5 Olympic golds/8 total). Nurmi was so irritated that when he went home, he set another world record in the 10,000 that was unbeaten for 13 years.

Amsterdam 1928 Seals the Legend

After the Paris success, Nurmi toured the U.S., competing and winning in multiple events. Injuries were piling up, and he was starting to burn out as a runner. In Amsterdam, he only entered the 3000 steeplechase, the 5000, and the 10,000, his favorite.

Nurmi at the 3000m steeplechase. In 1928, the barriers were higher and he fell, but eventually took a silver. Photo at Olympic.org.

During a heat in the steeplechase, he fell on his back. French runner Lucien Duquesne helped him up, and Nurmi rewarded him by helping him pace the rest of the field so that both could make the finals. Nurmi won the silver. In his return to the 10,000, Nurmi with his rival Ritola and the great Swedish runner Edwin Wide had obliterated the rest by mid-race. When the Swede dropped out, Nurmi stayed with Ritola to the last lap, then zipped by him at the end. He then picked up his stopwatch and sweatsuit and… you know the rest.

Blocked out of the Marathon in 1932

For his last Olympics, the 1932 Los Angeles Games, Nurmi had set his sights on only one race: the marathon. He had been working on pacing strategies for years and based on his training and trial times though he could best the record by several seconds. But the Swedes and the rules took him out of the competition as no runner ever could.

Remember that the early notion was that athletes were gentlemen. Athletics came out of a tradition from the English and French aristocrats who did not work. Athletes were not supposed to earn money–at all. Definitely not as athletes. This bombastic attitude flew in the face of the desire for athletes and spectators to put on a fairly contested race. How could the race be open to everyone if athletes didn’t have money?

The answer was that it was impossible, but athletes were trying to work around the rules. They were allowed to have their expenses paid or to have others build training facilities. The amounts of money paid began to exceed expenses, and the “shamateurism” was criticized by the Amateur Athletic Foundations and the IOC. Nurmi traveled and competed; he earned money both as expenses and under the table. Most of the time, for most of the athletes, the IAAF and IOC looked the other way. But not in 1932.

It didn’t help that Finland and Sweden were longtime political rivals, and that the particular individuals running their countries and their countries’ athletic associations hated each other. It didn’t help that the head of the IAAF was Sweden’s Sigfrid Edstrom. Nurmi had already moved to Los Angeles and been acclimating to the weather and the training facilities. But the IAAF suspended him for taking payments, three days before his first race, the 10,000.

The IAAF claimed they had evidence, from some Germans, although they refused to provide it or give him a formal hearing. It might not have helped that Nurmi remained a “stubborn Finn” and simply maintained his complete innocence, which was likely not the case. (Later records of the specific charges show he was paid some $300 for a race in Germany.) Petitions were filed, and thousands protested in Helsinki. The Finns and Swedes fumed at each other for another dozen years, during which Nurmi’s records stayed unbeaten. But he never raced in the Olympics again.

Into the Stadium

The Games came to Helsinki in 1952, after the war had ravaged Europe. Finland performed well, winning another 22 medals, although others had started to catch up with their medal-sweeping runners. They’ve had more success in the Winter Games of late, and others have adopted Nurmi’s methods to great success. The great Emil Zatopek, on winning one of his golds reportedly shouted, “I am Nurmi! I am Numri!” in homage to his great hero.

When the Olympic torch was brought into Helsinki stadium in 1952, there were rumors about the runners, but the entrants were a highly guarded secret. When 55-year-old Paavo Nurmi burst into through the tunnel, pacing himself like the days of old, Sports Illustrated wrote:

…Waves of sound began to build throughout the stadium, rising to a roar, then to a thunder. When the national teams, assembled in formation on the infield, saw the flowing figure of Nurmi, they broke ranks like excited schoolchildren, dashing toward the edge of the track.

Sports Illustrated, “After the Golden Moment, ” 2012.
The Helsinki crowd goes wild as Nurmi enters the stadium in 1952. Photo from Visitturku.fi.

Nurmi handed off the torch to his own Finnish idol, Hannes Kolehmainen, who then lit the Olympic flame. Then, Nurmi picked up his stopwatch and sweatsuit and….

Leave a Reply