There was an emotional moment for Finnish long jumping on a coolish Saturday evening in Helsinki Olympic Stadium this summer.
Tommi Evilä´s bronze medal on 13 August 2005 at the 10th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, sent Finnish fans crazy and brought back memories. Fine athletes, both men and women, have proved that Finns can fly long leaps through the air despite not setting tracks much alight in the sprinting events.
1956 Olympic bronze and fifth in 1960
Jorma Valkama, for instance, who, at Melbourne half a century ago, did exactly what Evilä did, albeit in very different circumstances. The 1956 Olympic Long Jump final was marred by strong, shifting winds, which made it hit-and-miss at the take-off board. The Cricket Ground Stadium cinders were soft and loose, and the sun was bathing from the hot November sky at +30 C.
After one not-so good jump and one foul, the small Finn – just 1.72m tall – faced a situation familiar to Evilä 49-years-later. Accelerating down the runway, he gave all he had and landed at 7.48m, which distance finally proved good enough to bring him an Olympic Bronze medal behind American duo Greg Bell (7.83m) and John Bennett (7.68m).
By that time, the runway was becoming a mess. The impossibility of conditions was proved by the fact that Valkama’s fifth-round 7.22 was the longest of the competition’s last half!
One may say Valkama was lucky, but you never succeed in big meets by just sheer luck. The long-time captain of the Finnish national team indeed deserved it. Having joined the 7-metre club late, at age 21, he schooled himself to become a fantastic competitor, ten-time national champion with 44 international dual matches in 1950-1962, winning 28 of them, and finishing 5th in the 1960 Rome Olympic final, in which the first four – led by new star Ralph Boston – flew over eight metres.
Valkama´s Finnish record of 7.77m in Turku in September 1956 put him 3rd in the European all-time list. In 1957, he amazingly won all his 40 competitions at home and abroad, which feat made him the Athlete of the Year in Finland in sportswriters´ poll.
Still going strong in 1962 at age 34 and not even thinking about retiring, Valkama tragically met his death in a car accident in December – one of the saddest peices of news ever in Finnish athletics.
In the early part of the century, leading Finnish long jumpers were Uuno Railo, who did an excellent 7.16m in his new home of Waukegan, Illinois in 1911 – Number One performance in the world that year -, Olympic Triple Jump champion Vilho Tuulos, who took 4th place in the 1924 Paris Olympic final, and Martti Tolamo (orig. Topelius), whose name is found in the Pentathlon World record lists in 1930.
Tolamo, a priest and schoolmaster, did a wonderful 7.51m in a dual match in Berlin in September 1934, beating German aces Wilhelm Leichum and Luz Long in the process, and missing Irishman Peter O´Connor´s European record from 1901 by just 10cm.
Tolamo was fatally wounded on the last day of Winter War against Soviet Union in March 1940, perishing the following day. His Finnish record stood for 20 years, finally beaten by Valkama.
In the 1950´s, some of the other leading Finns were Jorma Valtonen, 5th in the 1952 Helsinki Olympic final, and Wilhelm Porrassalmi, 5th in the 1954 European Championships and a national record holder as well.
Valkama´s torch was carried by two young talents, very different in character and build. Rainer Stenius, just 19, took the silver medal in the 1962 Europeans in Belgrad behind Soviet´s Igor Ter-Ovanesian, and Pentti Eskola, 24, the bronze, both Finns cutting the sand at 7.85m.
Eskola, smaller of the two, with cat-like agility, stepped into new era with an 8.04m on Helsinki Olympic Stadium cinders in July 1963, the second-best in European history at the moment. He also had a wind-assisted 8.15 at Kauhava. His fantastic season of some 50 competitions from April to October made him the Athlete of the Year and the Most Popular Finn, amongst other acclamations.
Stenius, big and strong extrovert, surpassed 8 metres in 1965 and did his longest ever, 8.16m, at Los Angeles in May 1966, joining the world elite in the all-time lists behind Boston, Ter-Ovanesian and Olympic Champion Lynn Davies.
Only 23 of age, NCAA champion Stenius’ future loomed bright until he was hit by Achilles tendon injuries and had to leave the sport. He became a Doctor of Physiology in the USA and did not return to Finland until 1997, but is now working for the Finnish Federation as a Long Jump coach.
’World record’ combined jumper
Eskola, in the midst of injuries, had a long career, clearing 7 metres for fun in his late 30´s. During the 1971 season, a huge amount of 60 Finnish men made this admirable distance, a feat never achieved later again.
In 1968, a young talent Pertti Pousi produced 17.00m in the Triple Jump and 8.04m in the Long Jump at Kuortane on consecutive days – a “World Record “ combination in those events up to that time. Two years later, his promising career was as well over.
In the 1971 Europeans in Helsinki, Mauri Myllymäki was 5th – he later became a well-known athletics commentator in television – and 35-year-old Reijo Toivonen was 6th.
8.34m hang tops long career
Jarmo Kärnä, eight-time Finnish champion, had the longest career in this event in the national team, from 1981 to 1994. A slow developer like Valkama, he did not pass 7 metres until age 20, and yet became an international class jumper with 10th place in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, 6th in the 1990 Europeans in Split and a bronze medal in the 1992 European indoors.
Kärnä’s simple yet powerful hang style carried him to record-equalling 8.16m at Riga in 1989. He also had a massive wind-assisted 8.34m in the series – the longest leap by any Finn ever.
And then came Tommi!
Police constable Juha Kivi was the next Finn over 8 metres in 1989. In later years, the dream limit has been just-and-just missed by Juha Plosila and evergreen Kenneth Kastren – a slender but springy athlete, national team member since 1994, when he at last beat Stenius’ national junior record from 1962!
In the new millennium, Simon Sundsten and Niklas Rorarius have joined the 8-metre fraternity (both wind-assisted), until a big giant named Tommi Evilä joined the scene and crowned his great 2005 season with national record diatances 8.18 and 8.19 (plus 8.27 and 8.25 with wind), moving Stenius´ ancient name from the lists. We will hear more about him.
More medals, as the Women leap far too
Among the Finnish women, Pori housewife Maire Österdahl took the bronze medal in the 1950 Europeans in Brussels, and versatile Pirkko Helenius did the same in Rome 24 years later, with her best ever of 659. Helenius’ amazing range was highlighted by national titles in Pentathlon and Cross Country running as well!
We also remember Ringa Ropo (now Junnila), who was elected the Beauty Queen of the 1989 European Indoors in Budapest, where she won the bronze medal. Originally a high jumper, Ropo at age 14 cleared 1.78m and her best ever 1.88m in 1987, until a back operation and change of events became a must.
Ropo’s 6.85m still stays a Finnish record, but she also had a windy 6.93m at Sestriere in 1992, in the fantastic competition in which Heike Drechsler sailed into unknown with an unbelievable 7.63m.
Johanna Halkoaho and Heli Koivula-Kruger – Triple Jump European silver medallist in 2002 – have been the leading Finnish women long jumpers in recent years.
Twelve women over 6.40m and fourteen men over 7.90m is not bad for a country of some five million inhabitants. It seems age really doesn´t matter: Petri Keskitalo jumped 7.31 at age 15 and Tapani Taavitsainen 7.04 two weeks before his 50th birthday!
Matti Hannus for the IAAF