Sport - Tuesday 15.8.2000

Paavo Nurmi: a majestic runner but one thorny customer as a man

 The Flying Finn was decades ahead of his time, and much closer to our own

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By Juhani Syvšnen

The name of Paavo Johannes Nurmi (1897-1973) has been very much in the foreground in the past week, as the operatic spectacle Paavo the Great was performed twice last weekend in Helsinki's Olympic Stadium. Nurmi is quite possibly known even to those without a burning interest in sports, as his exploits on the track - nine Olympic gold medals and a total of 12 Olympic medals - were quite enough to rank him alongside the likes of Carl Lewis or Pele as the "Sportsman of the 20th Century".
By any standards, Nurmi was a prodigiously talented athlete, but he was a great deal more besides. It is of course a dreadful generalisation to say that most sportsmen are wooden figures and interesting only when on the field or in the ring or on the track, but in Nurmi's case the character of the man is every bit as fascinating as his running. For all his legendary status in international athletics, the Finnish people still do not really know their great sporting hero. He is and will always remain a semi-mythical figure.
Three years ago, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of his birth, a kind of "Nurmi post-mortem" was performed, but it shed little by way of new light on the man. The distance-running legend should have been examinable in his lifetime, but he never gave anyone, neither press not public, the chance to get close enough.
The description by Gabriel Hanot in Le miroir des sports in 1924 is typical:

"Paavo Nurmi lives beyond humanity. He is ever more serious, reserved, concentrated, pessimistic, fanatic. There is such coldness in him and his self-control is so great that never for a moment does he show his feelings. (...) Why does he seem to lack human qualities? Is he a slave of sport, of training, of records, in such degree that he sacrifices his body and soul, with no thought, regard of free moment spared for the outside world."

"Is he not an amateur only by name, this athlete of 27 years whom the Finns call a student engineer and the Swedes a professional? The future will undoubtedly answer these questions. In any case, it is to be doubted that Nurmi can maintain his present situation for very long. We have now found the Finnish champion thinner, ruder, even more silent and withdrawn than before, more disincarnated. This extraordinary runner who, for one reason or another, has formidable, intensive fanaticism for sport, will soon have to give us an answer to the living mystery that he constitutes."

Through his studied silence
, Paavo Nurmi built around himself a strong protective wall. Gabriel Hanot was wrong; Nurmi took most of those feelings that would have interested the researchers with him to the grave. And yet there was nothing particularly mysterious about Nurmi's running as such. Coaches have had no difficulty answering the question of what made him a multi-medallist at three Olympics or a record-breaking machine at distances from 1500 metres up to 20km and the one-hour run (19,210 metres, set in 1928).
It may be a tired old expression, but Nurmi was quite simply years ahead of his time as a runner. He trained endlessly and with a zeal that was quite different from his contemporaries, and he was totally merciless towards himself. Nurmi could be regarded as a pioneer of programmed track coaching. Most of his fellow-competitors in the 1920s were near-dilettantes, worlds apart from his dedicated - and very modern - approach to the sport.

So much for the athlete
, but in terms of Nurmi's outlook on life in general we have a great deal less to go on. He was a controversial and conflicting figure: great on the track but very hard to deal with off it. His friends could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Nurmi's contemporaries were not only confused by his professional attitude towards training, but also by how critically he viewed sport at the top, even during the heyday of his active career. The Finns were sold lock, stock and barrel when Nurmi waltzed off with five gold medals from the Paris Olympics of 1924. They were particularly taken by his ability - in the space of barely an hour in gruelling, sweltering hot conditions - to win the 1500 metres AND the 5,000 metres in Olympic record times. After the smiling figure of Hannes Kolehmainen (who had run Finland into the headlines in 1912 in Stockholm), people were prepared to take as their national hero the stony-faced Nurmi.
However, the disappointment was great when Nurmi refused to step into the role as planned. He kept the national passions in check by being dismissive about his achievements, delivering remarks such as "I would have achieved a great deal more of value in my life if I had not started running in my youth" shortly after he hung up his spikes. To young people he gave the message that it was worth thinking twice before taking up a sporting career, as it left nothing permanent behind it. What modern-day Olympic champion would dare to mock sports in such a brutal fashion?

The Finnish sports historian
and running researcher Erkki Vettenniemi examined the problems surrounding Nurmi's character in the athlete's jubilee year, and he made a fair job of it. In his view Finland has embezzled the legacy left by Nurmi and annulled his last will and testament. Subsequent generations have not been told how clearly and categorically Nurmi condemned competitive sports at the highest level.
This is all quite true. Throughout his running career, Nurmi was in the opposition, but in the fine speeches these polemical views have been neglected entirely. The passionately patriotic among us still have great difficulty swallowing the fact that Nurmi ran his medal-winning races for Paavo Nurmi alone, and not for Finland.

Nurmi's prickly character
is not the only reason why the running legend swam against the stream in so many things and became almost a recluse after his career came to an end. Nurmi was embittered by not being alllowed to take part in the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics of 1932 (which was to have crowned his career) following the loss of his international amateur status. Already in the 1920s Nurmi mocked the hypocrisy of the IAAF's and IOC's amateur rulings by making money out of his running, but his actions did not fit in with the temper of the time.
Were Nurmi to be still alive today, he might well ask in his turn how the morals of the Olympian gods are faring now. They are a good deal worse in their tolerance of commercialism, corruption, doping, and other ills than ever in Nurmi's day 80 years ago. The core of the Olympic Games is rotten and the responsibility lies solely with the leadership in Lausanne.

At the time of his death in 1973
, Paavo Nurmi was one of the richest men in Finland. He did not make his millions by running or by wearing the right shoes, however, but through building houses of bricks and mortar in Helsinki, by trading in textiles and clothing, and by dealing wisely on the stock market.
At the Helsinki Olympics of 1952 (originally scheduled for 1940, but postponed by the cataclysm that overtook Europe in 1939), Nurmi got some balm for the wrongs done to him earlier, but he showed no great enthusiasm for the honour of carrying the Olympic torch into the stadium. It was only after a stern talking-to by the then Prime Minister and subsequent President Urho Kekkonen that Nurmi agreed to perform.

As a runner Nurmi provided his own libretto
. The clock determined his running rhythm - all else was tossed aside. Reportedly he consulted his stopwatch repeatedly while setting the record for the mile (4:10.4) in 1923, and ran three identical laps of 63 seconds while doing so.
As for what Nurmi would have thought of the opera libretto by Paavo Haavikko that was set to music by Tuomas Kantelinen for last week's performances, the runner and magnate - "like a centaur, half horse, but with a human face" - would probably turn in his grave to know he had to appear as the star of the show.

This article was originally published in the paper's cultural pages, as a complement to the review of the opera.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.8.2000

 Paavo Nurmi 100 years
 IAAF Track and Field Legends
 Nurmi on the Finnish FIM 10 banknote - possibly the only Olympic athlete to be honoured in this fashion

Helsingin Sanomat

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