… in case you don’t speak fluent Finnish, that’s “scram!” or “run like a rabbit!”. This typically Finnish expression is a tribute to Ville Ritola, an athlete with a short, but impressive, Olympic record. In only two Games of the Olympiad, he won a total of eight medals, including five gold. Let’s look back at the career of this athlete who would have been 111 years old today.
In the Olympic starting blocks
In 1920, Hannes Kolehmainen tried to convince his friend Ville Ritola to join the Finnish athletics team for the Olympic Games in Antwerp. But Ritola was not yet ready, and declined the offer. Never mind, he would be ready for the next Games!
So, in 1924 in Paris Ville, Ritola participated for the first time in the Olympic Games. He ran in six events and won a medal in each of them. It all started with the 10,000 metres, where he pulverised his own world record by 12 seconds in a time of 30:12.2, coming in first by half a lap. Three days later, he crossed the finish line of the 3,000 metres steeple chase 75 metres ahead of his Finnish friend, Elias Katz, who came in second. The following day, he finished second in the 5,000 metres, neck-and-neck with his compatriot Paavo Nurmi: only two-hundredths of a second separated them. He also came second in the cross country, 35 seconds behind Nurmi. In the team cross country, Ritola, Nurmi and rest of the Finnish team struck gold. The same team won a second gold in the 3,000 metres. So, these first Games were a real success for the Flying Finn. In total, he won four gold and two silver medals.
Back at the Olympic Games in Amsterdam in 1928, Ritola took part in only three events this time. In the 10,000 metres, he came second, only six-hundredths of a second after the winner, who was none other than Paavo Nurmi. In the 3,000 metres, he finished first in the heats, but didn’t manage to finish in the first six in the final. Finally, in the 5,000 metres, he finished first, passing Nurmi on the last bend, leaving him 12 metres and two seconds behind. For his last Olympic event, he earned himself the gold medal: his fifth.
The Peräseinäjoki wolf
Born on 18 January 1896 in Peräseinäjoki, Finland, Ville Ritola left his native country at the age of 17 to join his parents and seven sisters, who were already living in the USA. It was here that he met several other young Finnish immigrants who, like him, were passionate about long-distance running: Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi and, later, Lasse Virén. Together they created the Finnish-American Athletic Club. As they became increasingly successful, this group of young athletes was nicknamed The Flying Finns – a name which is now part of athletics history. As for Ritola, he was nicknamed The Peräseinäjoki Wolf, in reference to his home town and his ability to speed up in the last laps of a race.
After the 1928 Olympic Games, he retired from competition for good. He returned to Finland in 1971, and died there 11 years later at the age of 86. Ritola is a good example of the benefits of endurance sport, which enabled him to keep on top form long after his competition days were over.