Kolehmainen crowned king of the track
No track athlete had a better record at the 1912 Games than the Finn Hannes Kolehmainen, who took home three gold medals and set the same number of Olympic records. He could claim to be the first great distance runner of the Olympic Games, winning the 5,000m, 10,000m and individual cross country events in thrilling fashion – while also taking a silver in the team cross country discipline, which was effectively decided by aggregating the results achieved by a country’s competitors in the individual race.
Kolehmainen, who was 22 at the time of the Games, came from strong sporting stock – his brothers, William and Tatu, were also distance runners of international quality. It was Hannes, who worked as a bricklayer, who made a name for himself on the world stage, starting on 7 July when the 10,000m heats were held at the Olympic Stadium.
Kolehmainen qualified for the final comfortably, finishing almost 10 seconds ahead of the Canadian, Joe Keeper, in his semi-final and was one of 15 runners to contest the following day’s final. Among them was his brother Tatu, who had won his own semi-final by more than seven seconds.
Hannes got off to a flying start in the final, as the Official Report itself recalled. “He ran from start to finish in a wonderfully easy and attractive style, and was evidently in the best possible form,” it said. Kolehmainen won the race in 31:20.8, finishing more than 45 seconds ahead of Lewis Tewanima, and set a formidable new record for the Games.
Next came the 5,000m, Kolehmainen’s exploits in the 10,000m distance meant that he attracted a sizeable crowd, and he did not disappoint, coasting through his heat to reach the final with a minimum of fuss.
“Kolehmainen, true to his custom, went ahead without a thought,” said the Official Report of his start in the final. But he did not have things all his own way at first, with three rivals soon overtaking him. A “long, rapid spurt” saw the Finn regain the lead and then, with the pace picking up dramatically as Frenchman Jean Bouin edged ahead, a titanic battle for the line began. Both men were neck and neck over the race’s final stages until “Kolehmainen, with stubborn energy, gained decimetre after decimetre, and, just on the very winning-post, flung himself before Bouin and, in this manner, won the most interesting, the severest and the finest long-distance race that has probably ever been witnessed”. He edged home by just 0.1 seconds, setting a world record of 14:36.6 in the process.
He then won his third gold medal in the cross country event on 15 July. Held over 8,000m, the race began in the stadium before taking the competitors across sections of tricky woodland that featured steep climbs and tough descents and then reaching its climax back in the stadium. Hot favourite Kolehmainen made his usual strong start and his victory was in little doubt from an early stage. He finished in 45:11.6, some 33 seconds ahead of Hjalmar Andersson, and soaked up the crowd’s tumultuous applause.
At the time, Finland was part of Russia, so Kolehmainen’s victories were acknowledged under the Russian flag. He would go on to spend a lot of time in the USA, gaining citizenship in 1921, but not before winning another Olympic gold – in the marathon at the 1920 Games in Antwerp. He had shown himself to be the master of all longer distances, although one final tilt at the marathon at the Paris Olympics of 1924 failed to yield further success.
Kolehmainen did enjoy another special Olympic moment in 1952, when the Games were held in the Finnish capital city, Helsinki. He and Paavel Nurmi – another superb distance runner who succeeded him as one of Finland’s biggest sporting stars – were chosen to light the Olympic flame together.