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Great European Lives: Paavo Nurmi

How the ‘Flying Finn’ dominated distance running during the 1920s through sheer dogged determination more than natural talent.

It’s often the case with the world’s best words that there’s no direct English translation, something certainly true of the Finnish sisu. Indeed, for a concept that lies at the very core of Finnish character and identity the Finns even have trouble defining it themselves. Forged from centuries of fighting off invaders against often staggering odds, sisu is a word encompassing tenacity and ferocity, determination and grit, and the ability to keep on going long after most have given up. It’s almost the anti-hygge, an extreme form of mental strength under duress, specific to the Finnish nation and its people. Perhaps the most straightforward method of defining sisu is to just point at a picture of Paavo Nurmi. ‘Mind is everything; muscle, pieces of rubber,’ the winner of nine Olympic gold medals once said. ‘All that I am, I am because of my mind.’ Paavo Nurmi was the embodiment of sisu. A relentless runner of metronomically consistent pace, he dominated distance running during the 1920s through sheer dogged determination more than natural talent. His desire to win was obsessive and came at the cost of close friendships and a conventional family life. Indeed, other people didn’t really figure at all in Nurmi’s single-minded pursuit of victory, not even rival athletes. On the track he wasn’t even really racing against the other runners, instead he was competing against himself and the clock: he ran carrying a stopwatch in his hand, even in Olympic finals. For most athletes, other runners were enough as an opponent. Paavo Nurmi raced time itself. Thanks to Chariots of Fire the 1924 Paris Olympiad is remembered almost exclusively for Harold Abrahams’ and Eric Liddell’s achievements in the sprints, when the real story of the games was that of the ‘Flying Finn’, the taciturn distance runner with the easy, high-stepping running style and a will of iron who, in the space of a week, turned both the Olympics and our understanding of the limits of human endurance on their heads. Nurmi began the games with gold in the 1,500 metres, a race he won so convincingly in Olympic record time that his most serious challenger, Ray Watson of the USA, effectively gave up the chase altogether with a lap still to run. Less than an hour later, Nurmi was lining up for the final of the 5,000 metres. His two main rivals, the US-based Finn Ville Ritola and Sweden’s Edvin Wide, set off at a blistering pace thinking Nurmi would be feeling the fatiguing effects of his 1,500m win. They had reckoned without sisu. For once, Nurmi actually raced the other athletes instead of the clock, tossing his stopwatch to the side of the track and gradually reeling in the leaders, taking gold 0.2 seconds ahead of Ritola and setting his second Olympic record in the space of an hour. The following day Nurmi was part of the Finnish team that qualified for the 3,000m final, and the day after that he competed in what turned out to be arguably the most gruelling race in the history of the Olympic Games, a cross-country event of roughly six miles held on one of the hottest days in Parisian history, on which temperatures reached 45C. Nurmi was one of 38 runners to start a race that only 15 would finish, many of them dazed and barely able to stand: in hindsight it’s a wonder none of the athletes died. The course ended with a lap of the stadium track and when the first athlete entered the arena – a Frenchman, to the delight of the home crowd – he became so disorientated that he ran in circles before running into the stands and knocking himself unconscious. Nurmi was next, taking gold a minute and a half ahead of Ritola, while a third Finn, Heikki Liimatainen, eventually entered the stadium struggling to stay upright, let alone run. It took him fully two minutes to complete the last 30 metres of the race, but by doing so he ensured Finland took the team as well as individual gold. Paavo Nurmi had won four gold medals in three days, one of which saw half the competitors end the race unconscious. The following day Nurmi lined up for the final of the 3,000m team event. It was his seventh race in six days and he was competing against some of the best distance athletes in the world who were arriving at the start completely fresh, alongside a man who barely 24 hours earlier had run a race so punishing that many of its competitors still lay in hospital as the gun went for the start. He won. It’s hard to know what drove Nurmi to such competitive extremes (he had no close friends, was married only briefly and left little in the way of personal correspondence). As a 15-year-old he had, like most Finns, been captivated by the achievements of Hannes Kolehmainen, who won three gold medals at distance running at the 1912 games. Just over two years earlier, Nurmi’s father had died and within months he’d also lost his youngest sister. As the eldest child he’d found himself suddenly the family breadwinner at the age of 12, taking a backbreaking job as a baker’s errand boy heaving a pushcart loaded with sacks of flour up and down the hilly streets of his home city of Turku. Did Kolehmainen’s achievements, which set Finland on the road to a period of extraordinary global dominance of distance running, provide the one chink of sunlight in a dark domestic vista? Did shutting out everything but the stopwatch until he was the best in the world keep Nurmi’s grief at bay? The family had been struggling even when his father was alive, living in one room, so did running provide his only escape from grief and relentless poverty? One thing’s for sure, he wasn’t fired by patriotism. ‘I ran for myself, not for Finland,’ he said towards the end of his life. Surely, the interviewer insisted, he must have felt some sense of national pride wearing the Finnish vest at the Olympics, at least? ‘Especially not then,’ replied the national hero whose image even appeared on Finnish banknotes. ‘At the Olympics Paavo Nurmi mattered more than ever.’ Was this blunt self-absorption of a singular goal a coping mechanism from a double blow of grief combined with intense hardship and responsibility at an impressionable age? Nurmi remained an enigma for most of his life. Indeed, when he married in 1932 the union was over inside three years due to what his wife, Sylvi Laaksonen, described as his ‘extreme taciturnity’. There was also the curious issue of their son’s feet. ‘Paavo measured them, and said he was not satisfied,’ said Sylvi of an issue that proved to be the final matrimonial straw. Nurmi won 10,000m gold at the Amsterdam Olympics in 1928 as well as two silvers in the 5,000m and steeplechase, and was all set to run the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics four years later when an investigation by the International Amateur Athletics Federation declared some of the expense payments he’d received for exhibition races to be so outlandish they made him a professional athlete and hence ineligible to compete at the Olympics. Arguably the greatest Olympian of them all – a title bestowed on him in 1996 by Time magazine – Nurmi suddenly found himself in the international wilderness. Having run his final race in 1934 at the age of 37, winning a domestic 10,000 metres that meant he retired unbeaten at that distance for 14 years, Nurmi turned briefly to coaching before becoming a hugely successful businessman, running a construction firm that made him one of the richest people in Finland. The older he got, the unhappier and more bitter he became that he still received more recognition for his running than his success in business, and in his final years he cut something of a sad figure on the streets of Helsinki, walking painfully with a stick and frequently snapping at starstruck well-wishers. He did make one significant concession, however, when he agreed to light the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony of the 1952 Helsinki games at the age of 57. When a stocky, balding figure in blue vest and white shorts emerged into the arena carrying the flame the crowd rose as one. There had been much speculation as to who the final torchbearer might be and the appearance of that familiar rhythmic, high-stepping, elbows akimbo running style prompted a huge outburst of emotion. The athletes in the centre of the field broke ranks from behind their respective national flags and rushed to the edge of the track to watch him pass. As the world looked on Paavo Nurmi, almost 30 years after his greatest triumph and approaching his seventh decade, bounced along on the balls of his feet, easing his arms back and forth to the rhythm of his measured breathing, and completed his final, ultimate victory over time.