Paavo Nurmi is the most accomplished distance runner in history.
Born in Turku, Finland, on this date in 1897, Nurmi was the oldest of five children raised in poverty. The entire family lived in one cramped room, subsisting on a diet of black bread and dried fish that rarely included fresh meat or fruit. After his father died when Nurmi was 12, he dropped out of school and began working as a delivery boy to help provide for his family. The work developed strength in his back and legs, as he delivered baked goods up a hill to the Turku railway station by pushcart. Inspired by countryman Hannes Kolehmainen, who was said to “have run Finland onto the map of the world” by winning three long distance races at the 1912 Stockholm Games, Nurmi bought his first pair of sneakers at 15 and began running. In 1919, he joined the military, where he quickly impressed in the athletic competitions. One year later, he was running for his country in the Olympics.
Paavo Johannes Nurmi made his international debut in August at the 1920 Summer Games in Antwerp, Belgium, finishing second in the 5,000 meters to Frenchman Joseph Guillemot. He would not finish second in an Olympic race again until eight years and nine gold medals later. Nurmi went on to win gold medals in the 10,000 meters, the individual cross country and the team cross country races. Pleased with his success, the Finnish government provided electricity and running water for his family in Turku along with a scholarship for Paavo to study at an industrial school in Helsinki. Following his defeat to Guillemot, Nurmi modified his racing approach. He designed a rigorous training schedule that included speed work and began carrying a stopwatch, striving to spread his efforts more uniformly over the distance. Nurmi’s mastery of pace judgement brought a new dimension to distance running, and he began training twice a day. In a July 1924 Paris heatwave, Nurmi dominated the Olympic distance races in a manner that has never been equaled. On July 10, he broke the Olympic record in the 1,500 meter final by three seconds. Less than two hours later, he took gold in the 5,000. The temperature in Paris reached 113 degrees on July 12, where 38 competitors started the team cross country race. All but 15 abandoned, with Nurmi finishing first by a minute and a half. Shocked by what they had just witnessed, Olympic officials banned cross country running from future Games. The “Flying Finn” also claimed gold in the individual cross country and 3,000 meter team events, but it was the race he didn’t run that may be the most fascinating. Nurmi came into the 1924 Paris Games as defending Olympic champion at 10,000 meters, yet team management held him out of the event to save him for the 1,500 and 5,000 meter races, which he won. The omission left him fuming. While countryman Ville Ritola was winning the 10,000 in world record time of 30:23.2, Nurmi was on the training track alone, running 29:58. He left Paris with five gold medals, still the most for a track athlete in a single Olympic Games.
Finns define themselves by sisu– an intense, impassive and self-disciplined resilience under adversity. Others call it guts. Paavo Nurmi’s combination of tactics, training and temperament made him unlike any track athlete that has ever lived. He started his training day with a 6 mile morning walk that included a few sprints, followed by gym work. On the track an hour later he would run sprints. Finally, in the evening he would run four to six miles, followed by 100 meter sprints. In the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, Nurmi won a gold medal in the 10,000 before claiming silver in the 3,000 meter steeplechase and 5,000. Following the Amsterdam Games, he turned his attention to longer distance events. In 1928, he broke the world records for the 15K, the ten miles and the one hour run—where he covered nearly 12 miles. Believing there are “neither unbeatable records nor human limits,” Mr. Nurmi set his sights on the 1932 Olympic marathon. At age 35, with a dozen years’ international experience, Nurmi was poised—based on training and Trial times–to run 2:19:00 and end his career with a marathon gold medal. The world record was 2:29.20. In one of the most ill-judged official rulings of all time, Nurmi was suspended for “professionalism” three days before the start of the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Despite a petition from all competitors in the marathon race, Nurvi’s entry was denied, and he retired following his last race in 1934.
Paavo Nurmi won 12 Olympic medals in his career—nine of them gold. In the 120 year history of the Modern Olympics, only Michael Phelps has won more gold medals. His breadth as a runner was unprecedented, as he raced distances from the mile to the marathon, rivaling the freakish exploits of future Olympians Eric Heiden [Daily Dose, February 15] and Katie Ledecky [Daily Dose, December 8]. Nurmi is the only runner ever to hold the world record simultaneously for the mile, 5K and 10,000 meters. He set 22 world records and held the mile mark from 1923 to 1931. Nurmi introduced speed work, pacing and race tactics to distance running. Following retirement from track, the Flying Finn started a construction company and became wealthy. In 1952, he carried the torch in the Opening Ceremony of the Summer Games in Helsinki and his statue adorns the outside of Olympic Stadium there. Nurmi loved to win but never smiled. He studied the science but never shared his knowledge. Apart, stern and silent, he was a man of uncompromising discipline. Mr. Nurmi died October 2, 1973 in Helsinki.