Paavo Nurmi’s feat turns one century

Nor is there a better thermometer to understand the transcendence of a character than the echo that his death has. The death of Paavo Nurmi, protagonist of one of the great Olympic feats of which today marks 100 years, was honored as head of state in Finland on October 2, 1973, undoubtedly a high recognition that other athletes have enjoyed. A bronze statue in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium has also translated his greatness to the present day. The added bonus, which gives an idea of ​​the universal size of the first great distance runner in history, is that his farewell occupied a spot on, no less, the cover of The New York Times.

Dubbed the Flying Finn, Nurmi won nine Olympic gold medals and three silver medals. between the 1920, 1924 and 1928 Games – a professional tour of the United States caused the IOC to not allow him to compete in the 1932 Los Angeles Games – and he set 22 world records.

When it comes to rescuing one day in his career, nothing takes on more tinges of prowess. than what was achieved on July 10, 1924 at the Colombes Stadium in Paris, when in 55 minutes he won the Olympic finals of 1,500 and 5,000.

Nurmi, the son of a carpenter, was born in Turku on June 13, 1897. He was the eldest of a family of five children, raised in the same humble room. They almost always ate black bread and raw fish and rarely introduced novelties such as meat or fruit. The school was so far away that, in the snow, he reached it on skis.

Statue of Paavo Nurmi at the Helsinki Stadium

At the age of 12, the death of his father from hemoptysis – Lajhla, the little brother had died a year after his birth months before in 1909 –, forced him to leave his studies. He started as an errand boy in a bakery, pulling carts and sacks. At 15 he went to work in a foundry and at 17 he began training alone by running 80 km a week. His arrival in the army confirmed his chances of being an athletics star.

A defeat to start

In the 20 km military marches, with boots, a rifle, an ammunition belt and a five kilo sandbag, He was so far ahead of the rest that the officers believed he was using shortcuts. The commander of his unit, an athletics fan, freed him to do his best in preparation for the arrival of the Antwerp Games. There he took revenge in the 10,000 m. of his previous defeat in the 5,000 against the Frenchman Joseph Guillemot and won his first gold. It was not a perfect experience. The Gaul, who at the end of a long meal at a royal reception found out on the fly that the race was being moved forward three hours, vomited on his feet as soon as he finished the race.

Four years later, Nurmi was ready for anything. The Finnish Olympic Committee He pointed him to the 1,500, 5,000, 3,000 team and 10 km tests. cross country which, in addition, also awarded medals in the country classification.

The concentration of tests—he had to run (and win) seven races in six days—dissuaded those responsible from including him. in the 10,000 meter track test, of which he was the current champion. In his place they put Vilho Ritola, who lived in the United States, to the indignation of Nurmi who, at the same time as the final was taking place, went to the warm-up track and ran the same distance. Ritola beat Paavo’s world record in that test by 12 seconds… Outside, moments before, the furious Finnish star had beaten him without homologation.

Paavo Nurmi leading the cross country event in 1924

The protagonist transferred that rage to July 10. Ahead of him he had the finals of 1,500 and 5,000 in less than an hour. Since he found out about the program – initially there was a half-hour margin, but they extended it after protesting – Nurmi ordered a test to be organized three weeks before in Helsinki. The test gave him confidence: he broke two world records, the 1,500 that was seven years old.

Already in Paris, the smaller distance ruled her firmly, letting go in the last 300 meters to save strength. Still he came within one second of the world record.

Without rest, he returned to the starting line. Ritola set a hellish pace in the 5,000 test. He passed 1,000 in 2:46.4, the same mark with which the 1972 Munich final was run. Halfway through the test, Nurmi began to command the race at the pace of a stopwatch, which he always carried in his hand and which represented a revolution in the moment. He kept going for 8 laps and with 500 meters left, he got rid of the watch by throwing it on the grass. In the final sprint, he beat Ritola by two tenths.

He never paid attention to his opponents; he never spoke and never smiled. The absolute inhumanity of this man broke the hearts of those who had to run against him

The Guardian

The apotheosis would come two days later with the cross country celebration. It came out on a suffocating day and the scenes were so horrendous that the discipline disappeared in the next edition of the Olympic program. And not because of the rictus of Nurmi who reached the finish line in a race at peak hour of relatively cool heat, after having had to overcome an obstacle course of one meter stone walls, knee-deep weeds and an environment contaminated by the poisonous emulsions from a nearby power plant.

Of 38 participants, 23 withdrew. Harper, the fourth, collapsed upon reaching the finish line. His compatriot Sewell took the wrong address and ended up crashing into another participant. Neither of them finished. The Spanish José Andía, who was fifth when he entered the stadium, hit his head on a cobblestone and began to bleed profusely. Hours after finishing the race, the organization was still looking for people on the roads around Colombes. To Nurmi’s credit, the next day, while many of the participants were recovering in hospital beds, he led Finland to victory in the team 3,000 meters, their fifth gold in Paris.

Nurmi in training

Nurmi was the pioneer in introducing the stopwatch to keep pace. Finland, A country that was very evolved in athletics, had already had other great champions such as Kolehmainen, the star of the 1912 Games and the one who inspired the legend to practice athletics.

Behind the figure of the great champion there always hid a cruel character, a man of few words and fewer friends. He rarely looked at his rivals, much less addressed them. “He never paid attention to his opponents; he never spoke and never smiled. The absolute inhumanity of this man broke the hearts of those who had to run against him,” wrote The Guardian.


Davide Piano

An experienced journalist with an insatiable curiosity for global affairs on newshubpro

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