‘Flying Finn’ Hannes Kolehmainen: Pioneer of long distance at Olympics | Sunday Observer

‘Flying Finn’ Hannes Kolehmainen: Pioneer of long distance at Olympics

28 March, 2022
Hannes Kolehmainen at the age of 70 in 1960
Hannes Kolehmainen at the age of 70 in 1960

Known to the sports world as Hannes Kolehmainen, he was the first great long distance runner of the Olympic Games. His fame is primarily based on his performances at the 1912 Olympics at which he won the gold medals in the 5000m, the 10,000m and the individual cross-country race. In his 5000m victory he broke the world record and was the first person to run the distance under 15 minutes. Then, he won the Marathon at Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games.

The original Olympic Marathon winner Spiridon Louis and the ‘gallant loser’ in the London 1908 Hannes Kolehmainen was a four-time Olympic Gold medalist at Stockholm 1912 and Antwerp 1920 Summer Olympic Games. He was a world record holder in middle- and long-distance running. Kolehmainen was the first in a generation of great long-distance runners from Finland and was the prototype ‘Flying Finn,’ an appellation inspired by his pioneering example in the years just before the First World War.

Olympics Dorando Pietri established their place in athletics history. A century later no other names from that era have remained recognizable to the informed public but Kolehmainen generated a legacy greater than any distance runner that had preceded him.

After having triumphed at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, the pioneer of long-distance running in Finland, Kolehmainen migrated to the United States. He competed for a number of years in the United States, wearing the Winged Fist of the Irish American Athletic Club. He also enlisted in the 14th Regiment of the National Guard of New York, and became a U.S. citizen in 1921.

In spite of his working-class credentials that had led to tension prior to Stockhom 1912 Olympics, the Finnish bourgeois sport authorities adopted him as their hero and literally bought him back from America, soon after Finland had gained independence.

A number of scholars have claimed that Kolehmainen’s running prowess not only brought the Finnish people together but also contributed to Finland’s quest for independence. Interestingly, the mythical notion that Kolehmainen, ‘Ran Finland on to the World Map’ became widespread under circumstances that posed an existential threat to Finland decades after the 1912 Olympic Games.

A joyous spirit with a seeming perpetual smile on his face, he was known as “Smiling Hannes”, in stark contrast to the later seemingly ever-suffering distance running legend, Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia. Hannes Kolehmainen set the stage for many to follow him, including Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, Albin Stenroos, Lauri Lehtinen, Volmari Iso-Hollo and Lasse Viren.

Birth and Progress

Johannes Petteri “Hannes” Kolehmainen was born on December 9, 1889 in Kuopio, near Lake Lalki. He was one of four well-known long distance running Kolehmainen brothers. The others were August Wiljami (Willie), Kalle, and Taavetti Heikki (Tatu). His older brother, Willie, was the first to achieve international acclaim. Running as a professional, he set a world best for the marathon on October 20, 1912, in Vailsburg, New Jersey.

Tatu Kolehmainen led, or was near the lead, of the 1912 Olympic marathon past the halfway mark. The brothers had trained together growing up. In addition to running, they trained with cross-country skiing and several times skiied to Iisalmi, a town about 100 kilometres away, and returned the next day.

Like his brothers, Hannes Kolehmainen began his running career competing in marathons. He was 1.68 in height and weighed 57 kgs. He ran his first marathon on June 16, 1907, finishing third in Viipuri, Finland. Through 1909, he ran eight marathons, winning his final one in Hanko, Finland, on September 19, 1909. His best time was 2:42.59, on a track in Goteburg only two weeks earlier. But after 1909, Kolehmainen stopped running marathons, at least for several years. He then turned his attention to the track.

Originally a member of the Kuopion Riento Club, Kolehmainen moved to Helsinki in 1909 and joined the well-known sports club Helsingin Kisa-Veikot. He ran for that club for several years, but switched to Helsingin Jyry, a workers’ association club, in early 1912. He was by then a renowned runner in his native Finland. In 1911, he had won 22 of 22 races, including the British AAA title over four miles, which was his first major international victory. He trained diligently, recording a solo time trial over three miles in 14:31.2 on June 10, 1912, proving his fitness for Stockholm.

Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games

The 1912 Stockholm Olympic Games in neighbouring Sweden was where Kolehmainen achieved his greatest successes winning three gold medals inthe 5000m (14:36.6), the 10000m (31:20.8) and the cross-country. He also won a silver in the cross-country team event. His 5000m victory after a head-to-head duel with the Frenchman Jean Bouin was what stuck in the memory most. After leading the field together for most of the race, Bouin was defeated by Kolehmainen in the final few metres, in a new world record time.

In Stockholm, Kolehmainen became the first great Olympic distance runner. His Olympic efforts began on July 7, 1912, when he won the first semifinal of the 10,000m clocking 33:49.0 to set an Olympic record and qualify for the final. The record lasted until the next semifinal, in which his time was beaten by Len Richardson. The next day, July 8, Kolehmainen won the 10,000m and took back the Olympic record clocking 31:20.8. He won the event by 46 sec over Lewis Tewanima of the USA.

The following day, Kolehmainen raced again, winning the fourth semifinal of the 5000m. On July 10, 1912, Kolehmainen ran in the 5000m final, in what was to become one of the greatest races in Olympic history. His main rival was the Frenchman, Jean Bouin and together they set out at a fairly slow pace. But at 1500m, Bouin took over the lead, and pushed the pace.

Kolehmainen responded and ran on Bouin’s shoulder for the next several kilometres. At the beginning of the last lap, Kolehmainen made several attempts to pass Bouin, all to no avail until the final straightaway. Less than 50m from the line, Kolehmainen edged ahead briefly, but Bouin spurted, catching him, but never passing him. At the line, Kolehmainen won by less than half a metre. His time of 14:36.6 was a new world record and Bouin completed in 14:36.7.

Together they shattered the 15-minute barrier, and Kolehmainen’s new world record was almost 25 sec faster than the previously recorded best of 15:01.2 by Arthur Robertson of Great Britain in 1908. Philip Noel-Baker later wrote, “Kolehmainen was happy and smiling, a generous competitor and a modest winner. Perhaps my personal affection for Kolehmainen makes me remember that 5000m as the most exciting race I ever saw.”

Kolehmainen had a day of rest, and then on July 12, ran in the semifinals of the 3000m team race. In heat one, there were only two teams, Finland and the United States. In an upset, the United States won the team contest and Finland did not qualify for the final. But it was hardly Kolehmainen’s fault.

Three days later, the cross-country final was run, with medals awarded to both individuals and teams. Kolehmainen won again, a clear 33 sec ahead of Hjalmar Andersson of Sweden. Finland finished second as a team, allowing Kolehmainen to finish his Olympic efforts with three gold medals and one silver medal.

After the 1912 Olympic Games, Hannes Kolehmainen moved to the United States. There he competed for both the Irish-American Athletic Club, the Kaleva Athletic Club, and as an honorary member of the Finnish-American Athletic Club. In 1912, 1913, and 1915, he won AAU title over five miles. He also became a naturalized American citizen.

The cancellation of the 1916 Summer Olympic Games undoubtedly prevented Kolehmainen from winning more Olympic honours at track events. However, Kolehmainen turned to the roads and finished fourth in the 1917 Boston Marathon.

In 1920, Kolehmainen won the New York Marathon. This was an Olympic qualifying race for the Americans, but three Finns living in the United States - Kolehmainen, Juho Tuomikoski, and Ville Kyronen used the race as their own qualifying race.

Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games

The Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games marathon course was the longest in Olympic history. At 20 km., the lead pack consisted of Chris Gitsham of South Africa, Auguste Broos of Belgium, Kolehmainen of Finland, Ettore Blasi of Italy, Juri Lossman of Estonia and Juho Tuomikoski of Finland, close behind.

Kolehmainen took the lead at the midpoint of the race and he and Gitsham ran together for almost 15 kilometres. Gitsham, however, was having problems with a leg injury and withdrew shortly thereafter. Kolehmainen by then was pulling away for what appeared would be an easy victory.

At the first post-war Olympic Marathon, held in Antwerp, on August 22, 1920, Kolehmainen won the gold in a time of 2-32:35.8 – a world’s best mark for amateur runners and a new world record despite the Antwerp course, at 42.75km, having been significantly longer than at any other Olympics.

After Antwerp 1920, Kolehmainen continued to compete as a runner, but mostly at longer distances, at which he set several world records. He returned to Finland and thereafter represented the Turun Urheiluliitto Club. On October 10, 1920, he set a world record for the 25-kilometre distance, running 1-26:29.8 in Tampere, Finland. He bettered that time with 1-25:20.0, also in Tampere, on June 22, 1922.

Later, he broke the world record for 30 kilometres, running 1-47:13.4 in Viipuri on October 1, 1922. Hannes Kolehmainen ran no marathons between 1920 and 1924. He did not run any of the Finnish Olympic marathon trials for 1924, but he ran a 27-kilometre solo trial in 1-35:00 shortly before the Olympics and convinced the Finnish selectors of his fitness. He was chosen to run the marathon in Paris, but did not finish the race.

He ran one more marathon in his career. On June 17, 1928, he entered the Finnish Olympic trial in Kauhava, but again failed to finish. It was his last competition. Hannes Kolehmainen was revered in Finland. He made his living with various careers, including being an inspector, a clerk, a farmer, a mason, and finally, as a businessman.

In a foretaste of what happened in the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics (when a Korean, Sohn Kee-chung won the Marathon competing under the Japanese flag and a Japanese name, Son Kitei), the Russian flag was raised for Kolehmainen’s victories. Although, there was a separate Finnish team at the Olympics Finland was still part of Russia.

Spirit of Energizing Generations

‘Sisu’ is a mixture of stoic determination, tenacity of purpose, grit, bravery, resilience and hardiness. The nearest English adjective, equally pithy, would be “gutsy”. It describes situations in which success is achieved against the odds by dint of courage and resolution against adversity, and drawing on inner strength.

The Finnish people saw Kolehmainen’s performances in Stockholm 1912 Olympics as a perfect example of ‘sisu.’ While his sporting career was stalled by the First World War, the impact of his Olympic performances lived on. So did Kolehmainen, but after the First World War, his focus was on the longer distances – particularly the marathon.

Back in 1912 Paavo Nurmi had been one among many aspiring Finnish runners inspired by Kolehmainen’s Olympic feats. Eight years younger than Kolehmainen and aged only 15 he began a strict training program which flourished during his military service. In the build-up to his international debut at the 1920 Summer Olympics he set several national records and went on to win the Olympic 5000m.

In all Nurmi set 22 world records at distances between 1500m and 20km and won nine gold and three silver medals in his twelve events in the Olympic Games between 1920–1928. 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 the 10,000m.

At the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris,Kolehmainen entered the Marathon but did not complete the race. Nurmi won five gold medals and although he is by far the better known of the two Finns he never ran a Marathon. His plans to compete in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Marathon were thwarted by the IOC questioning his amateur status and rejecting his entry only two days before the race. The ruling was confirmed in 1934 and he retired from athletics.

Kolehmainen inspired not only Nurmi but many other “Flying Finns.” His career ‘Personal Best’ achievements were 3000m in 8:36.9 (1912); 5000m in 14:36.6 (1912); 10000m in 31:20.8 (1912); Marathon in 2-32:35.8 (1920).

Legacy of Hannes Kolehmainen

At Stockholm 1912 Olympic Games, in the 5000m, he ran a heroic duel with Frenchman Jean Bouin. After leading the field together for most of the race, Bouin was only defeated by Kolehmainen in the final metres - in a world record time. In addition, Kolehmainen won the 10,000m and the now discontinued cross country event. With the Finnish team, he also obtained a silver medal in the cross-country team event.

At the time, Finland was still a part of Russia, and the Russian flag was raised for Kolehmainen’s victories, making him say that he “almost wished he hadn’t won.”

Kolehmainen’s sportive career was interrupted by the First World War, but he remained an athlete to be reckoned with, although his specialty had now shifted to the longer distances, especially the marathon and at Antwerp 1920 Olympic Games, he won the gold medal in this event.

He was from a sporting family from Kuopio in central Finland. His brothers William and Tatu were also strong long-distance runners. Tatu competed in two Olympics and finished 10th in the Marathon in 1920. But as well as any individual traits or genetic predisposition towards athletic success there was held to be something in the Finnish character which helped to maximize physical performance, particularly in endurance events.

Kolehmainen was a vegetarian by choice and bricklayer by trade – both parts of his life which involved constant self-discipline. By 1952, when the Olympic Games were held in Helsinki,Kolehmainen had found a worthy successor in Paavo Nurmi. The Olympic Torch was brought into the stadium by Paavo Nurmi, the man who succeeded Kolehmainen as the greatest Finnish distance runner.

Paavo Nurmi ran once around the track and then handed the torch to Hannes Kolehmainen, who lit the Olympic Flame in the stadium. Hannes Kolehmainen died in the same city of Helsinki fourteen years lateron January 11, 1966, and is listed amongst the Olympians who were accorded a State Funeral.

(The author is an Associate Professor, International Scholar, winner of Presidential Awards and multiple National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc. His email is [email protected])