1920 Summer Olympics
174 centimetres tall and weighing 65 kilograms at his prime, Paavo Johannes Nurmi (13 June 1897 – 2 October 1973) was ideally built for a long-distance runner. In terms of basic training knowledge, Nurmi was self-educated. He was one of the first top athletes who had a systematic approach in training. Walking, running and calisthenics were the main elements of his harsh training regimen. He learned to measure his pace and its effects with a stop watch, and never raced without one in his hand. In 1914 Paavo Nurmi joined Turun Urheiluliitto, a local sports club that he was to represent all through his career. On 29 May 1920 in Turku he set his first Finnish national record. The distance was 3000 metres and the time 8.36,2.
Born in Turku, he was known as one of the "Flying Finns"; a term given to him, Hannes Kolehmainen, Ville Ritola and others for their distinction in running. During the 1920s, Nurmi was the best middle and long distance runner in the world, setting world records at distances between 1500 m and 20 km.
Nurmi debuted at the 1920 Summer Olympics by competing in four events. He won three gold medals: the 10,000 m, the cross country event and the cross country team event, and finished second in the 5000 m.
Men's athletics, 1500m
Winner Paavo NURMI at the finishing line
IOC Olympic Museum Collections
The cross-country race
Paris Olympic Games, 12 July 1924
Nurmi in the lead, followed by Edvin Wide of Sweden (L)
Ville Ritola is crossing the stone fence
In 1924, he won five gold medals in five events, including the 1500 m, 5000 m (with only 26 minutes between the final races; as a try out he had broken the world record in both of these events earlier the same year, the 3000 m team race, and again both cross country events. It was the last time these cross country events were held, as the great heat caused more than half of the competitors to abandon the race, and many more had to be taken to hospital. Finnish officials, fearing for his health, refused to enter Nurmi in the 10,000 m event. Thus, he was unable to defend his title. An angry Nurmi protested after returning to Finland by setting a 10,000 m world record that would last for almost 13 years.
Nurmi ended his Olympic career at the 1928 Summer Olympics, winning the 10,000 m and two silver medals (5000 m and 3000 m steeplechase).
In early 1932 Paavo Nurmi trained hard for his fourth Olympic Games, perhaps more determined than ever before. He wanted to defend his title in the 10,000 metres, but his greatest ambition was to crown his career with a gold medal in the Olympic marathon, as Hannes Kolehmainen had done in 1920. In that spring, however, Nurmi was suspended from international competition by the International Amateur Athletic Federation following accusations of professionalism. Nurmi did go to Los Angeles and kept training at the Olympic Village in spite of the ban and a foot injury. Some witnesses claimed that he could hardly walk from his pains, let alone run. Despite pleas Paavo Nurmi was never allowed to race at the Los Angeles Games. Nurmi was reduced to the role of a spectator - he could not bring himself to watch the 10,000 metres or the marathon, however. Nurmi claimed that he would have won the marathon by five minutes.
Having wound up his running career Nurmi concentrated on a new one, as a businessman and building contractor. Since the 1920's he had been building up his capital, investing wisely in the stock market. Paavo Nurmi made a considerable fortune, mainly in housing industry. In Helsinki there are 40 town houses built by his company. In the 1930's and 1940's Nurmi sometimes took leave from his business commitments to train Finnish runners.
Paavo Nurmi ran his first and only marathon (albeit a shortened distance of 40,200 metres) at the Finnish Olympic trials in Viipuri on 26 May 1932. He won the race by an overwhelming margin.
The Helsinki Olympic Games, 19 July 1952
Paavo Nurmi brings the flame to the Olympic Stadium
Helsinki Olympic Games, 19 July 1952
Paavo Nurmi lights the Olympic Flame
Opening Ceremony of the 1952 Olympic Games
IOC Olympic Museum /Allsport (Credit: Getty Images)
The Games of the XVth Olympiad were opened at Helsinki, Finland, on 19 July 1952. The identity of the last runner of the Olympic torch relay was a well-kept secret. When the electric scoreboard of the Olympic Stadium then flashed the text: "The Olympic torch will be brought into the Stadium by Paavo Nurmi", there was first silence. Then 70,000 people began to roar. Many of those present burst into tears. After Paavo Nurmi had kindled the flame in the bowl (above)the torch was taken to the tower of the Olympic Stadium, where another flame was lit by another Olympic hero, Hannes Kolehmainen.
Intelligence, introversion and strong determination to achieve any goal were the main characteristics of Paavo Nurmi's mental outlook. In his melancholy moments - more frequent in advanced age - he could even question his unparalleled achievements in sport: "Only real work, science and art have any true value." Paavo Nurmi never retired from his duties. Having recovered from coronary thrombosis in the late 1950's he worked hard until 1967 when the suffered another attack. In 1968 Nurmi set up a research foundation for coronary disease and public health and provided it with two multi-storey buildings and a substantial amount of money.
Is he the best known Finn of all time? Possibly not, but he is arguably the best known long distance runner of them all and to the people of Finland he was, and is, the man who ran their country on to the world map. That was in the 1920s, just a few years after Finland had gained independence and was strengthening its position among the free nations of the world. It was the decade when Paavo Nurmi dominated middle and long distance running.
As an athlete Nurmi was ahead of his time: he trained with a dedication and intensity never previously seen. With stopwatch in hand he raised the quantity and quality of endurance training to levels that none of his contemporaries could equal. The result was that, apart from his Olympic victories, he set altogether 25 world records at distances from 1,500 metres to 20,000 metres in a career that lasted at the highest level of athletics for some twelve years.
Nurmi was an introvert. To many observers he seemed bleak and remote, interested only in his running and ultimately dissatisfied with his achievements on the track. He wanted to leave behind something permanent and clearly did not share the view that records, as today's saying goes, are meant to be broken. But there was a twofold permanence to his achievements: in his day, he ran farther and faster and for more seasons than anyone else and, despite his apparent dislike of publicity, he came to be regarded as Finland's unofficial goodwill ambassador at a time when his country needed all the positive exposure it could get.
Paavo Nurmi died at Helsinki on the second of October, 1973. Obituaries all over the world praised his achievements. Marjatta Väänänen, the Finnish Minister of Education, said in her commemoration speech: "Records will be broken, gold medals lose their lustre, winners find their victors. As historical concept, Paavo Nurmi will never be beaten." On October 11th, 1973, Paavo Nurmi was given a state funeral.