Paavo Johannes Nurmi’s incredible nine Olympic Golds in middle distance | Sunday Observer

Paavo Johannes Nurmi’s incredible nine Olympic Golds in middle distance

14 November, 2021
Paavo Nurmi – Nine Gold and Three Silver Olympic Medals-Golden Nurmi on his way to a Gold at Paris 1924 Olympics
Paavo Nurmi – Nine Gold and Three Silver Olympic Medals-Golden Nurmi on his way to a Gold at Paris 1924 Olympics

Paavo Johannes Nurmi was a middle-distance and long-distance runner who won an incredible nine gold medals at successive Summer Olympic Games in the 1920s. He was part of a golden generation of Finnish runners, known as the “Flying Finns”, who dominated the track. Nurmi set 22 official world records at distances between 1500-metres and 20-kilometres. He won a total of 12 Olympic medals - 9 gold and 3 silver in the Summer Olympic Games of 1920, 1924 and 1928. At his peak, Nurmi was undefeated for 121 races at distances from 800m upwards. Throughout his 14-year career, he remained unbeaten in cross country events and 10,000m.

Birth and Growth

Nurmi was born in Turku, Finland, to carpenter Johan Fredrik Nurmi and his wife Matilda Wilhelmiina Laine. Nurmi’s siblings, Siiri, Saara, Martti and Lahja, were born in 1898, 1902, 1905 and 1908 respectively. In 1903, the family moved from Raunistula into an apartment in central Turku, where Paavo Nurmi would live until 1932. They regularly ran or walked six kilometres to swim in Ruissalo, and back, sometimes twice a day.

By the age of 11, Nurmi ran the 1500m in 5:02. Nurmi’s father died in 1910 and his sister Lahja a year later. The family struggled financially, renting out their kitchen and living in a single room. Nurmi, a talented student, left school to work as an errand boy for a bakery. Although he stopped running actively, he got plenty of exercise pushing heavy carts up the steep slopes in Turku. He later credited these climbs for strengthening his back and leg muscles.

At 15, Nurmi rekindled his interest in athletics after being inspired by the performances of Hannes Kolehmainen, who was said to “have run Finland onto the map of the world” at the 1912 Summer Olympics. He bought his first pair of sneakers a few days later. Nurmi trained primarily by doing cross-country running in the summers and cross-country skiing in the winters. In 1914, Nurmi joined the sports club Turun Urheiluliitto and won his first race on 3000m.

During the Finnish Civil War in 1918, Nurmi remained politically passive and concentrated on his work and his Olympic ambitions. He continued to provide for his family until he started his military service in 1919. While in the army Nurmi quickly impressed in the athletic competitions. While others marched, Nurmi ran the whole distances with a rifle on his shoulder and a backpack full of sand. Nurmi’s stubbornness caused him difficulties with his comrades, but he was favoured by the superior officers, despite his refusal to take the soldier’s oath.

The unit commander, Hugo Osterman, a known sports aficionado, gave free time to Nurmi and a few others to practice. Nurmi improvised new training methods in the army barracks; he ran behind trains, holding on to the rear bumper, to stretch his stride, and used heavy iron-clad army boots to strengthen his legs. Nurmi soon began setting personal bests. In 1920, he was promoted to Corporal. On May 29, 1920, he set his first national record on the 3000m and went on to win the 1500m and 5000m at the Olympic trials.

174-centimetres tall and weighing 65 kilograms at his prime, Nurmi was ideally built for a long-distance runner. In terms of basic training knowledge, Nurmi was self-educated. He was one of the first top athletes who had a systematic approach in training. Walking, running and calisthenics were the main elements of his harsh training routine. He learned to measure his pace and its effects with a stop watch, and never raced without one in his hand.

Antwerp 1920 Summer Olympics

Nurmi made his Olympic debut at Antwerp 1920 Games. He took his first medal by finishing second in the 5000m. Then, he took the competition by storm winning gold medals in the 10,000m, cross-country individual and team events. Nurmi’s success brought electric lighting and running water for his family in Turku and he was given a scholarship to study at the Teollisuuskoulu industrial school in Helsinki.

Previously known for his blistering pace on the first few laps, Nurmi started to carry a stopwatch and spread his efforts more uniformly over the distance. He aimed to perfect his technique and tactics to a point where the performances of his rivals would be rendered meaningless.

Nurmi set his first world record on 10,000m in Stockholm in 1921. In 1922, he broke the world records for 2000m, 3000m and 5000m. A year later, Nurmi added the records for 1500m and the mile. His feat of holding the world records for the mile, 5000m and 10,000m at the same time has not been matched by any other athlete before or since. Nurmi also tested his speed in the 800m, winning the 1923 Finnish Championships with a new national record.

After excelling in mathematics, Nurmi graduated as an engineer in 1923 and returned home to prepare for the upcoming Olympic Games. He once put his guiding principle to words: “When you race against time, you don’t have to sprint. Others can’t hold the pace if it is steady and hard all through to the tape.”

Paris 1924 Summer Olympics

At the Paris 1924 Games, Nurmi made history by becoming the first athlete ever to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. The Games were the finest hour of Finnish athletics and Paavo Nurmi in particular.

His most legendary feat was to win the 1500m and 5000m within two hours. He also won the individual crosscountry and led Finland to gold medals in team cross-country and 3000m team race. The French magazine Miroir des Sports wrote: “Paavo Nurmi goes beyond the limits of humanity.”

In the 1500m final, Nurmi broke the Olympic record by three seconds. In 5000m final Nurmi faced a tough challenge from countryman Ville Ritola. Realizing that he was now racing the men and not the clock, Nurmi tossed his stopwatch onto the grass. On the home straight, Ritola sprinted from the outside but Nurmi increased his pace to keep his rival a metre behind.

In the cross-country events, the heat of 45 °C caused all but 15 of the 38 competitors to abandon the race. Eight finishers were taken away on stretchers. One athlete began to run in tiny circles after reaching the stadium, until setting off into the stands and knocking himself unconscious. Nurmi exhibited only slight signs of exhaustion after beating Ritola to win by nearly a minute and a half.

In 3000m team race on the next day, Nurmi and Ritola again finished first and second, and secured the gold medal for the Finnish team. After returning to Finland, Nurmi set a 10,000m world record that would last for almost 13 years. He now held the 1500m, the mile, 3000m, 5000m and 10,000m world records simultaneously.

In 1925, Nurmi toured the United States. During five months, he raced 55 times and gave numerous running exhibitions. He won 53 of his races, abandoned one and lost only once. Most of these races took place indoors. During that spring Nurmi got more attention in America than any Finn before or after.

The demanding American tour left its mark on the great runner. Later, in 1925 Nurmi raced a few times in Finland but broke no more records. In fact, in the Olympic distances he never did improve from his three world records made in 1924 (3:52.6 in 1500, 14:28.2 in 5000 and 30:06.2 in 10,000).

Amsterdam 1928 Summer Olympics

At the 1928 Olympics, Nurmi competed in three events. He won the 10,000m by staying right behind Ritola until sprinting past him on the home straight. Before the 5000m final, Nurmi injured himself in his qualifying heat for 3000m steeplechase. In 5000m, Nurmi tried to repeat his move on Ritola but had to settle for the silver. In steeplechase, Nurmi let Finland’s specialist Toivo Loukola escape into the distance and finished second.

He then turned his attention to longer distances, breaking the world records for events such as the one hour run and 25-mile marathon. In 1928, in an interview to a Swedish newspaper, Nurmi said: “This is absolutely my last season on the track. I am beginning to get old. I have raced for fifteen years and have had enough of it.” But he decided to go on, doing most of his running abroad.

Los Angeles 1932 Summer Olympics

In early 1932 Paavo Nurmi trained hard for his fourth Olympic Games, perhaps more determined than ever before. He wanted to defend his title in 10,000m, but his greatest ambition was to crown his career with a gold medal in the Olympic marathon. In that spring, however, Nurmi was suspended from international competition by the International Amateur Athletic Federation following accusations of professionalism.

Nurmi did go to Los Angeles and kept training at the Olympic Village in spite of the ban and a foot injury. Some witnesses claimed that he could hardly walk from his pains, let alone run. Despite pleas Paavo Nurmi was never allowed to race at the Los Angeles Games. Nurmi was reduced to the role of a spectator.

Once suspended, Nurmi was not allowed to compete abroad. The Finnish Athletic Federation never accepted Nurmi’s sentence, however, and he continued to race in the home country until 1934, as a “national amateur”. Nurmi’s last race was a victory in the 10,000m at Viipuri on September 16, 1934.

Service to the Country

Having wound up his running career Nurmi concentrated on a new one, as a businessman and building contractor. Since the 1920s he had been building up his capital, investing wisely in the stock market. Nurmi made a considerable fortune, mainly in housing industry. In Helsinki there are 40 town houses built by his company. In the 1930s and 1940s Nurmi sometimes took leave from his business commitments to train Finnish runners.

Paavo Nurmi avoided publicity both in business and in private life but when needed he was ready to give service to the society and Finnish sports in particular. In the war years his fame was put in good use to rally support for the Finnish cause, especially in America.

Helsinki 1952 Summer Olympics

In 1952, Nurmi was persuaded by Urho Kekkonen, Prime Minister of Finland and former chairman of the Finnish Athletics Federation, to carry the Olympic torch into the Olympic Stadium at the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki. His appearance astonished the spectators, and Sports Illustrated wrote that “his celebrated stride was unmistakable to the crowd. When he came into view, 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 field was the flowing figure of Nurmi, they broke ranks like excited schoolchildren, dashing toward the edge of the track.”

After lighting the flame in the Olympic Cauldron, Nurmi passed the torch to his idol Kolehmainen, who lighted the beacon in the tower. Nurmi later coached Finnish runners, raised funds for Finland during the Winter War, and worked as a haberdasher, building contractor, and stock trader, eventually becoming one of the richest people in Finland.

Final years and death

Intelligence, introversion and strong determination to achieve any goal were the main characteristics of Paavo Nurmi’s mental outlook. In his melancholy moments – more frequent in advanced age – he could even question his unparalleled achievements in sport: “Only real work, science and art have any true value.” Paavo Nurmi never retired from his duties. Having recovered from coronary thrombosis in the late 1950s he worked hard until 1967 when the suffered another attack. In 1968, Nurmi set up a research foundation for coronary disease and public health and provided it with two multi-storey buildings and a substantial amount of money.

Paavo Nurmi died in Helsinki on October 2, 1973. Obituaries all over the world praised his achievements. Marjatta Vaananen, the Finnish Minister of Education, said in her commemoration speech: “Records will be broken, gold medals lose their luster, winners find their victors. As historical concept Paavo Nurmi will never be beaten.” On October 11, 1973,he was accorded a state funeral at the Old Church of Helsinki. From there he was taken in a motorcade to his native Turku where he was buried in the family grave at the Old Cemetery.

The Legend

Paavo Nurmi has been honoured in various ways. Several books and thousands of articles have been published about him in many countries. After the Paris 1924 Olympics the Finnish Government ordered a statue of him from the most famous sculptor of the country, Waino Aaltonen. In 1952, two more reproductions of the statue were cast, one erected in front of the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki, the other in Nurmi’s home town, Turku.

In 1983 the original statue, long kept at the National Art Museum, was placed in front of the Faculty of Physical Education of the University of Jyvaskyla. In 1994, one more duplicate was cast for the park of the Museum of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland. Medals and stamps have been issued and streets and even a small planet have been named in honour of him. In 1987, the Bank of Finland issued a ten-mark note featuring Paavo Nurmi on one side and the Olympic Stadium on the other.

Nurmi was married to socialite Sylvi Laaksonen from 1932 to 1935.She was not interested in athletics and opposed Nurmi raising their newborn son Matti to be an athlete. Matti admired his father more as a businessman than as an athlete, and the two never discussed his running career. As an athlete, Matti was at his best in the 3000m, where he equalled his father’s timing.

Nurmi’s speed and elusive personality led to nicknames such as the “Phantom Finn,” “King of Runners,” “Peerless Paavo,” “The Flying Finn,” or “The Finnish Running Marvel”. His mathematical prowess led the press to characterize him as a running machine. Nurmi, who rarely ran without a stopwatch in his hand, has been credited for introducing the “even pace” strategy and analytic approach to running, and for making running a major international sport.

Nurmi’s record for most Olympic gold medals was matched by gymnast Larisa Latynina in 1964, swimmer Mark Spitz in 1972 and athlete Carl Lewis in 1996, and broken by swimmer Michael Phelps in 2008. Nurmi’s record for most medals in the Olympics stood until Edoardo Mangiarotti won his 13th medal in fencing in 1960. Time selected Nurmi as the greatest Olympian of all time in 1996 and the IAAF named him among the first twelve athletes to be inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.

(The author is the winner of Presidential Awards for Sports and recipient of multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. He can be reached at [email protected])