Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi would have been 110 years old today. Although he died on 2 October 1973, his astonishing career remains alive today. This career was punctuated by three editions of the Games of the Olympiad: Antwerp (1920), Paris (1924)
and Amsterdam (1928). Although he had already achieved fame at the Antwerp Games, with three gold medals and one silver medal, the Paris Games were the ultimate accolade, with five gold medals in only six days of competition. His mysterious, rigorous nature, alongside the apparent ease with which he obtained his victories, gave him an unusual image. Let’s take a brief look at the Parisian saga of an unstoppable champion.
A double at home
In Paris, Paavo Nurmi expected to take part in the 1,500 and 5,000 metres, but the finals of these two events took place on the same day with only a short interval between them. Worse still, the runner had injured his knee a few months before the Games. However, it would have taken more than that to discourage the headstrong Finn, who kept up his preparations. His determination bore its fruit. On 19 June 1924 in Helsinki, he established two new world records in the 1,500 and 5,000 metres in the same day. Would he manage the same double at the Olympic Games in Paris?
Five gold medals in a row
A month later, Nurmi was on the starting line for the Olympic 1,500 and then the 5,000 metres final in the Colombes stadium. He won, without too much difficulty, the 1,500 metres ahead of Switzerland’s Wilhelm Schärer. He then went on to the 5,000 metres, where he faced his most fierce opponent, Ville Ritola
. This compatriot had already won the 10,000 metres and the 3,000 metres steeplechase. Nurmi finally won this Finnish head-to-head.
In scorching 45° heat, Paavo Nurmi was again battling it out in the cross country – a distance of 10,650 metres. Of the 38 competitors who started the race, only 15 managed to finish it, including the indefatigable Paavo Nurmi. He came in first, comfortably ahead of his shadow, Ritola, at the same time giving Finland a gold medal in the team event.
Still fresh despite all the kilometres he had already run, Paavo finished first in the 3,000 metres team event the following day. With his teammates Ritola, Katz, Talja, Liewendahl and Seppälä, he gave his country yet another medal. The Nurmi phenomenon was born!
With his stopwatch in his hand, Nurmi managed his races methodically. Henceforth, time no longer counted. As a real athletics legend, Paavo Nurmi appears as a statue in the Olympic Museum park in Lausanne. His bronze effigy with its timeless stride speaks just as much as all the superlatives used to describe the man.
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