Finland’s Veikko Hakulinen was already a double Olympic cross-country skiing champion and four-time medallist by the time he arrived in Squaw Valley. The first of those gold medals had come at Oslo 1952 in the 50km, a distance at which he also collected silver four years later in Cortina d’Ampezzo (ITA), where he won his second Olympic title in the 30km to go with a second silver in the 4x10km relay.
A sergeant in the Finnish Army and a forest ranger to boot, the 35-year-old Hakulinen was one of the greatest champions of his generation, and he further consolidated his status in California by winning another three medals, the highest individual tally of the VIII Olympic Winter Games.
His Games began with the defence of his 30km crown at McKinney Creek Stadium. The race was dominated by the man who had finished runner-up to him in Cortina, Sweden’s Sixten Jernberg, who topped the podium from his compatriot Rolf Rämgaard and the Soviet Union’s Gennady Anikin. Hakulinen could only manage sixth place, four minutes off the pace.
The Finn found altogether better form in the 15km four days later, staying in medal contention throughout and eventually claiming bronze behind Norway’s Håkon Brusveen, and Jernberg, who had to be content with silver this time.
Hakulinen’s next challenge came in the 4x10km relay, in which he skied the anchor leg for Finland behind Toimi Alatalo, Lero Mantyranta and Vaino Huhtala. Setting out in second place, some 20 seconds behind Brusveen, the Finn surprised everyone by catching the Norwegian, with the two Olympic champions then fighting out a memorable sprint finish. Digging deep as the line approached and with the crowd roaring the athletes on, Hakulinen pulled out a one-metre lead and held on to it to secure his third and perhaps finest Olympic gold.
The veteran did not stop there, however. He collected another medal in the 50km, though there was to be no repeat of his Oslo triumph of eight years earlier. His fellow Finn Kalevi Hämälainen, seven years Hakulinen’s junior, moved into the lead at the halfway stage and did not relinquish it. The determined Hakulinen hung in just behind him to take the silver, with Sweden’s Rolf Rämgaard crossing the line over three minutes later to collect bronze.
After taking his Olympic medal collection to an impressive seven, Hakulinen then switched to biathlon, returning to the Olympic stage at Innsbruck 1964 to contest the 20km, in which he finished 15th. An accomplished orienteer and rower, the doughty Finn continued to compete in all of his beloved sports at seniors level. Tragically, he died in a car crash in Finland on 24 October 2003, aged 78.