There have been a number of “Flying Finns” in the history of sport and the Olympic Games, but the greatest of all was Paavo Nurmi, winner of nine Olympic gold medals, which is still the record for athletics at the Games. He secured his ninth title in the 10,000m on 29 July 1928 in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam, following an umpteenth titanic battle with compatriot Ville Ritola.
They were the “Flying Finns” who lit up the middle-distance, long-distance, cross country and steeplechase events at the 1924 Games in Paris. Their names: Ville Ritola and Paavo Nurmi. While Ritola won four Olympic titles in the French capital, Nurmi had opened his gold medal haul four years earlier, having won the 10,000m, individual cross country and team cross country at Antwerp 1920. In Paris, he won the 1,500m, the 5,000m, the individual and team cross country once again, and the 3,000m team event. The Finnish delegation leadership had asked him not to race in the 10,000m at this Games edition, taking the view that he was already competing in too many events. Just over a month later, on 31 August 1924 in Kuopio, in his home country, he clocked a time of 30:06.2 in the distance – a world record that would last for 13 years.
Heading into his third Olympic Games, in Amsterdam in 1928, Nurmi had already racked up eight Olympic titles – more than any other athlete. Idolised in Finland, he was also a huge international star, who in 1925 had embarked on a highly successful five-month tour of the USA, which featured various meetings and races. At the time, he was the world record holder in the 1,500m, the mile, the 3,000m, the 5,000m and the 10,000m.
Amsterdam 1928 – Nurmi’s last Olympic hurrah
Nurmi, Ritola and their great Swedish rival Edvin Wide lined up at the start of the 10,000m in the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam on 29 July 1928, the day after the Opening Ceremony of the Games of the IX Olympiad. There were no heats; all 20 participants went straight to the final. In the early stages, the USA’s Joie Ray was setting the pace at the front. After 1,500m, Ritola accelerated into the lead, with Nurmi and Wide behind him. At the half-way stage, the three runners were more than 100m ahead of the chasing pack. After 6.5km, Wide fell back, leaving the two Flying Finns to battle it out for victory. Ritola was still in the driving seat, but Nurmi was hot on his heels. As they approached the home stretch, Nurmi made his move from the outside lane. Ritola tried to respond, but his rival and team-mate was the better sprinter and crossed the finish line a good three metres ahead of him, in a time of 30:18.8. It was Nurmi’s ninth Olympic gold medal, a record in athletics that would not be equalled until 1996, by the USA’s Carl Lewis.
But there was still more to come at the Amsterdam Games from the greatest Finnish athlete of all time. On 31 July, he took part in the 5,000m heats, in which the top four qualified for the final. He ceded first place to the USA’s Macauley Smith, with Wide and Great Britain’s Herbert Johnston coming second and third respectively, but refused to let Germany’s Otto Kohn pip him to the fourth qualifying spot. On 1 August, he lined up for the 3,000m steeplechase heats. This nearly ended in disaster, as Nurmi caught the barrier before the water jump and fell on his back, injuring his hip and ankle. However, he managed to get back up and win his race.
The final of the 5,000m took place on 3 August. Four years earlier, in the same distance, Nurmi had beaten his compatriot Ritola by 0.2 seconds in a photo finish. But this time, in a reverse of the result from the 10,000m contested a week earlier, it was Ritola who showed his mettle on the home stretch to take gold, while Nurmi had to dig deep to keep a resurgent Wide at bay and clinch silver. Nurmi remained sat on the grass for a long while after the race, exhausted and suffering from the pain in his hip.
The no. 1 track and field Olympian forever more?
Three golds and one silver at Antwerp 1920, five golds at Paris 1924, one gold and two silvers at Amsterdam 1928: 12 medals in total, making the great Paavo Nurmi the no. 1 track and field athlete at the Olympic Games, a status he still enjoys to this day. Although he did not know it at the time, the 3,000m steeplechase in Amsterdam would prove to be his final race at the Games.
The athlete who had revolutionised his sport – in particular by pioneering new training methods, including the even pace strategy, adapting to different distances and interval running – retired from sport in 1934. He went on to make a fortune in property, and had the honour of being the final torchbearer and lighter of the Olympic cauldron at the Helsinki Games in 1952. He died at the age of 76 in Helsinki on 2 October 1973. Nurmi is a true sporting and cultural icon in his country, and numerous statues have been built in his honour, including in the capital and in his home town of Turku. A bronze statue of Nurmi in action, designed by Wäinö Aaltonen, also stands at the entrance to The Olympic Museum in Lausanne. The legend of Paavo Nurmi lives on.