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Saarinen finishes first for Finnish first

Veli Saarinen was already a high-profile figure in the world of cross-country skiing when he was selected for the Finnish Olympic team that would compete at the Lake Placid Games in 1932. He had previously won the 30km at the Nordic Games in Stockholm in 1928, finished fourth in the 18km at the St. Moritz Games, and become world champion at the latter distance the following year in Zakopane, where he also secured a silver medal in the 50km. As no Finnish athlete had yet won an Olympic crown in cross-country skiing, Saarinen was determined to remedy that situation.

The 29-year-old began his mission on 10 February but was forced to settle for bronze in the 18km, unable to keep pace with the Swedish pair of Sven Utterström, who won by two minutes, and Axel Wikström, who had built up a 17-second lead over Saarinen by the time he crossed the finish line.

Three days later, Saarinen headed out in search of another medal in the 50km, on a course that had to be modified at the last minute due to the onset of unseasonably high temperatures. The organisers downscaled the trail to focus mainly on a wooded section, where the snow had held up better than elsewhere. The 25km loop, interspersed by three refreshment stations, saw 32 competitors representing nine nations set off at one-minute intervals.

In peak fitness, the athletic Finn was the fastest at the halfway stage, creating a one-minute gap between himself and countryman Väinö Liikkanen, who was pursued in turn by defending 18km champion Utterström and the Norwegian triumvirate of Arne Rustadstuen, Sigurd Vestad and Ole Hegge.

In the return leg, Hegge posted the best time but had fallen too far behind and finished fourth. In pole position, Saarinen maintained a steady pace while holding off the attacks of Liikkanen and reached the line with a comfortable advance of 20 seconds to win in 4:28.00. Rustadstuen, a further three minutes and 33 seconds back, took bronze.

Saarinen’s sporting career lasted another two years, during which time he clinched two further FIS Nordic World Ski Championship titles, in the 50km in Innsbruck in 1933 and in the 4x10km team event in Sollefteå (SWE) in 1934. The two-time Olympic medallist took up coaching upon his retirement from the ski trails, overseeing the Finnish cross-country team for over 30 years. The respected Scandinavian was also, right up to his death in 1969, the head of the Finnish Ski Federation for two decades.

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