Lasse Viren at the 1972 Olympics (Getty Images) © Copyright
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A Tower of tradition - Finnish athletics seeks inspiration from its roots

Any country owning a set of 114 Olympic athletics medals - 49 of them gold - can undoubtedly be proud of its achievements. To crown it all, this feat has been done by a population of just a little more than five million people. Matti Hannus retraces the history of athletics in Finland.

This coming August, Helsinki and Finland will again host the IAAF World Championships as they so marvellously did 22 years ago. A new generation has emerged, and a circle is about to close. Let us not, however, forget those who were before us, symbolized by the world-famous statue in front of Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium. As to Finnish stars, there is no doubt Paavo Nurmi still is the greatest of them all.

Finland did not hurry in joining the world athletics fraternity. The 1896, 1900 and 1904 Olympic Games came and went without the hardy men of the north, still belonging to Russia those days. In fact we can say very few people had the slightest idea of the Games being held.

In 1906, a small team of four athletes travelled to the Intercalated Games in Athens. Verner Järvinen - a boy of 12 at the time of the first Finnish athletics meeting in 1882 - had not lost his youthful zest for the sport. He fulfilled his dream, winning the first ever Olympic athletics gold medal for his country in the ancient-style discus throw.

Father of a unique athletics dynasty, Järvinen with his wife Thyra, fed, educated and coached all his four sons, finally to be athletics legends. Yrjö, the eldest of them, national class javelin thrower; Kalle, European record holder in the Shot Put; Aki, World record holder and twice Olympic silver medallist in the decathlon; and Matti, the javelin giant of the 1930s, Olympic and European champion, improving the World record to a still-respectable 77.23m.

The first Finnish marathon was run in 1906; the inaugural national championships were held in 1907. There was a burning national longing for freedom in the sports, which finally got its culmination in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm. Hannes Kolehmainen, only 22, won the 5000m, 10,000m and cross country gold medals with a friendly smile on his face. The first of the Flying Finns – and another protégé of an unusual athletics family -  eight years later he would polish his long career with a marathon victory at the Antwerp Olympic Games, Finland having reached its independence in December 1917.

Those were the years of immense upheaval in Finland, labelled by horrific Civil War in 1918, with thousands of people fighting against each other to the bloody end. Now, at last, the world map included the name of a new sovereign country, most of all known for its unbelievable distance runners.

The great 1920s saw Finland gather a massive amount of 47 Olympic athletics medals, of which 24 were of gold. In Paris 1924, incredibly only the big United States, with twelve golds, bettered Finland’s haul of ten.

Paavo Nurmi, also known as the Silent Finn, ran his first World record in 1921 and his last one in 1931. At his best, he was able to handle all distances between 1500 metres and the marathon. Nurmi’s collection of nine Olympic gold medals in three Games - highlighted by those of 1500 and 5000 metres in Paris on the same afternoon with less than an hour to recover - still remains unbeaten in track and field annals.

Let us remember Nurmi’s perpetual shadow Ville Ritola as well. Winner of five Olympic gold medals at various distances in 1924, he finally conquered the Magnificent Finn in their last ever tussle at the 1928 Amsterdam 5000 metres final. Hard to believe, but after the race Nurmi was lying on the green grass, hardly conscious, completely spent.

The 1930s were full of pleasure for the young Urho Kekkonen, national High Jump champion in 1924, chairman of the Finnish Athletics Federation for 18 years, later President of Finland for a quarter of a century from 1956 to 1981.

In Los Angeles in 1932, Finnish javelin men - led by the superb Matti Järvinen - took all three medals just as they had done in 1920 in Antwerp (where actually the first four were Finns). More was to follow in Berlin in 1936. Of the nine available medals in the steeplechase plus 5000 and 10 000 metres, Finnish distance runners took seven, crowned by a full sweep in the “ten”. Ilmari Salminen, Arvo Askola and Volmari Iso-Hollo - twice Olympic champion in the steeplechase - did what has been so usual to Kenyans and Ethiopians in our time.

Together with cross country skiing, athletics had become the national sport in Finland. Freshly built sports grounds were popping all over the country like mushrooms in autumn forest. The Olympic Stadium - with its imposing tower still the leading focal point of Helsinki horizon today - was solemnly opened in 1938.

Some of the greatest athletes of the era came from the country of the blue and white flag in the north. On the brand new Stadium track, Taisto Mäki became the first man to run 10 000 metres in less than 30 minutes in 1939. The previous autumn, young Yrjö Nikkanen had launched a javelin to a wonderful distance of 78.70, which would remain unbeaten in World record lists for 15 years.

Beside its athletes, Finland could be proud of its sports scientists as well. Professor Lauri Pihkala - the first professional coach of the country - and Armas Valste, legendary head coach of Finnish Federation from 1935 to 1960, were eagerly looking forward to the Helsinki Olympic Games in 1940. But they were to be deeply disappointed. Three months after the start of World War II in 1939, Finland was attacked by Soviet Union, and all the plans for the Games had to be abandoned.

Miraculously, athletics was not forgotten in the front. The six war years saw rudimentary running tracks, and field event areas being built in the Karelian forests. Thousands of young men took part in competition to keep themselves in shape. In May 1941, some one and a half million Finns - one third of the population - walked a distance of 10 or 15 kilometres in a friendly match against Sweden, including several evergreens of more than 90 years of age!

Berlin Olympic 5000 metres champion Gunnar Höckert was among the victims of the war. But a new generation was emerging, led by Viljo Heino, who - having trained diligently in the midst of gunfire - broke the 10,000 metres World record in 1944 and again in 1949. A European champion, he would remain the last Flying Finn for some three decades.

Statistics can sometimes tell unbelievable things. In 1949, a huge total of 156 Finnish men put the shot more than 13 metres in spite of no one reaching 16 metres. Today we can just dream of such participant masses in field events. There were shot putters in every town and village - and so were runners, hurdlers and jumpers. No one knew about the marathon fever, and yet there were 70,000 people taking part in cross country events in the spring of 1948.

Never again has there been such a longing for sports in Finland as after the war. One of the reasons behind the inspiration was evident. At last, the Helsinki Olympic Games were drawing near. The 19 July 1952 still may be the greatest day ever in Finnish sports. Paavo Nurmi, a very fit man aged 55, was running on the rainy cinders of the Olympic Stadium with a blazing torch. After 12 years of waiting, the dream of 1940 at last was true.

Regrettably on home soil, there was no gold medal for Finnish athletics for the first time since 1908, but the newborn enthusiasm was carried into one of the strongest national teams in the world. During the great era of international matches, Finland won 11 times in a row against seven European countries in 1957-1959.

Team captain Voitto Hellsten ran himself into the hearts of Finnish fans, racing a whopping amount of 102 times in international matches in 1951-1960, winning more than half of them. His relay anchor legs - several times catching and passing his rivals from hopeless positions - and his 400 metres Olympic bronze medal in Melbourne in 1956 will never be forgotten.

In the 1960s, there were stars and problems. Headstrong country boy Pauli Nevala had his Day of Days in Tokyo in 1964, his javelin victory bringing Finland its first Olympic athletic gold for 16 years. He was following the footsteps of  1948 London winner Tapio Rautavaara, whose main career in life was that of a movie actor and ballad singer - one of the most loved ever in Finland.

Six years after his Olympic feat, Nevala missed his team mate Jorma Kinnunen’s World record of 92.70 by just six centimetres. In 1991, Kinnunen would weep for joy in a TV studio in Helsinki, watching his son Kimmo taking the World javelin championship title in Tokyo.

Sadly, Finnish distance running reached its lowest ebb in the 1960s at the time when the sport was progressing in leaps and bounds everywhere else. The Finns had to be taught how to train again. Respected coach Arthur Lydiard from New Zealand did the job with praise in 1967-69. No immediate effect was to be seen, but his wisdom was bearing fruit, and suddenly Nurmi’s heirs were brimming with new self-confidence.

Jouko Kuha’s Steeplechase World record in 1968, and Juha Väätäinen´s European 5000m and 10,000 metres titles in front of a home crowd in Helsinki in 1971 showed the way for a crop of young lions, who did marvellous things in Munich on 10 September 1972. Lasse Viren - already the celebrated winner of 10,000 metres in spite of a dramatic fall - took another gold at 5000 metres immediately followed by Pekka Vasala in the 1500. So, Finland did what Paavo Nurmi had done 48 years earlier, the difference being that now two men were needed for the accomplishment.

The 1970s were a decade of surprising success for the invigorated Finns. The powerful Soviet Union was unbelievably beaten in an international dual match in Helsinki in 1975. Suddenly, Finnish women were a force as well. World class runners Riitta Salin, Nina Holmen and Mona-Lisa Pursiainen were following the footsteps of the early pioneers, women’s first national championships having been held as early as 1913-1923. After decades of suppression, women at last were equal with men.

The Montreal Olympic Games in 1976 became another great spectacle for the enigmatic Lasse Viren - since 1994 a statue to him has stood just metres away from that of Nurmi, outside Helsinki’s Olympic stadium - who again was fit when needed and repeated his golden distance double - the first man to do so, and still the only one today.

New boundaries were drawn to track and field athletics in the 1980s, with the Grand Prix circuit in full swing and the inaugural IAAF World Championships being held under blue skies in Helsinki in 1983.

Carl Lewis doubtlessly was the hero of the meeting, but for the Finnish hosts, the big moment of the wonderful week was Tiina Lillak’s last-gasp winning effort in the javelin final, followed by her uninhibited sprint of joy around the bend. With ever-reliable Arto Bryggare taking silver in the 110 metres Hurdles barely behind Greg Foster, that Saturday evening certainly was among the greatest ever in Finnish sports.

With another fine edition of the European Championships attracting large crowds in Helsinki in 1994, Paavo Nurmi’s country again proved it did not lack excellence in organizing skills. And yet there were threatening clouds in the sky. With the Third World emerging as an ever more serious factor in athletics, and economic depression hitting Finland hard in the early 1990s, success was getting more limited and resources for the national sport were getting scarce.

Surprisingly, most of the consolation during the difficult decade was brought by a pair of speedy walkers. Sari Essayah and Valentin Kononen painted beautiful artworks with their World titles in Stuttgart and Gothenburg. Both of them - always to be relied on in big races - gave everything to the sport they love.

Javelin throwing, a tower of tradition in Finnish athletics for more than 100 years, is still producing champions in spite of occasional hiccups. Heli Rantanen’s opening throw in Atlanta 1996 brought Finland its first women’s Olympic athletics gold ever (Kaisa Parviainen had thrown silver in London 1948 as well as Lillak in Los Angeles in 1984). Arto Härkönen had won the Olympic title in Los Angeles and Tapio Korjus in Seoul. Aki Parviainen’s World junior title in 1992 was followed by a full hit among grown men in Seville seven years later.

Finland’s Olympic haul of nine gold medals in the javelin simply is a mind-boggling feat. Seppo Räty, he of the enormous chest and fighting spirit, never joined the winner’s list in spite of stepping to the medal rostrum three times, but he can be proud of his surprising World Championship win in Rome, 1987.

With another millennium in full swing, Finnish athletics is fighting against difficult trends. It is not any more just tradition and memories. In the Finnish media, the allurement of money, entertainment and commercialism are mostly seen through ice hockey and motors sports. Also, it is a fact that only half the amount of babies of the big 1940s are born today. In the perpetual fight of dozens of various sports and past-times, with the young generation now having so many choices, athletics simply has had to give ground.

Nevertheless, encouraging signs have not completely gone. In television, athletics still remains one of the most eagerly followed sports. On hobby level, distance running is “in” today, with some 12,000 marathon runners last year - a huge number for such a small nation.

Also, there remains a most impressing relic from the past, still full of vigour. In 1970, a record crowd of 48,000 spectators on Saturday and the same amount on Sunday were following the annual match between Finland and Sweden in Helsinki. That weekend was the ‘goodbye’ for the cinders, but in the era of artificial tracks, this celebration still continues on both sides of the Gulf of Bothnia.

This September it will be 80 years since the inaugural meeting at the Zoological Grounds (now the training track for the World Championships), and the interest still seems to be the same. The Sweden-Finland match is something that every athletics fan in the world should see.

Regrettably and alarmingly, there were no medals for the Finns in Paris 2003 nor Athens 2004. But let us remember Arsi Harju´s Olympic Shot Put gold in Sydney and Janne Holmen’s European marathon victory in Munich. Both of them - surprises of the biggest proportions - told about the poetic beauty of the sport.

Most of all, amidst all the present problems, these two most recent international champions proved that success at the highest level can still be expected from the Finns.

Published in IAAF Magazine Issue 2 - 2005