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It is hard to avoid hearing the name, Paavo Nurmi, when you live in Turku, southwestern Finland. Aside from the stadium and statue dedicated to the renowned runner, there is an endless array of sporting events held in his honor. It is hardly surprising given that Nurmi was born and raised in the city, but I am ashamed to admit that I know almost nothing about the man who became known as the “Flying Finn.”
Determined to find out more, I make a visit to his childhood home, a modest two-room apartment nestled behind the railway station. There I am met by Jari Salonen, the managing director of the Paavo Nurmi Games and Arto Aunola, the games’ press officer, and over the next hour, I come to understand why Nurmi holds such a special place in Finnish history.
Described by Salonen and Aunola as “original,” Nurmi also embodied that distinctive Finnish quality, sisu. Born in 1897, Nurmi started training at an early age, racing against other boys in the neighborhood and running back and forth to the nearby island of Ruissalo. His friends soon discovered other interests but Nurmi was determined to become a champion.
It was not, however, plain sailing. In 1910, his father, Johan, died unexpectedly, leaving the family in a precarious financial position. As the eldest child, Nurmi left school and took up work as a baker’s delivery boy to help provide for his mother and younger siblings. He later said that the long hours spent pushing heavy carts around the city was an ideal training regime, helping to strengthen his back and leg muscles.
The long hours spent pushing heavy carts around the city was an ideal training regime, helping to strengthen his back and leg muscles.
Nurmi later worked in an engineering company as a filer, but the family was still barely scraping by. As Salonen and Aunola tell me, Nurmi’s mother, Matilda, eventually decided to lease the kitchen of their apartment to another family. Matilda and the children moved into the other room, sleeping on cot beds and preparing food, one item at a time, in the tiled oven. It was four long years before the family reclaimed their home.
Despite these hardships, Nurmi never gave up on his dream. Inspired by Hannes Kolehmainen’s winning performance at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, he bought his first pair of track shoes and joined the Turku Athletics Club. Nurmi soon started racing competitively, impressing coaches, spectators, and team members with his speed and determination.
At the age of 22, Nurmi was conscripted for national service. The sport was viewed as a beneficial pastime for the army and soldiers alike, so Nurmi continued to train, earning a reputation for some unorthodox methods. He walked at least ten kilometers every morning with heavy iron-clad boots and ran behind trains, holding onto the bumpers to lengthen his stride.
By 1920 Nurmi was a national long-distance champion and preparing for his first international competition, the Antwerp Olympics. His achievements were astonishing: gold in the 10,000 meters as well as the individual and team cross-country events and silver in the 5,000 meters. Nurmi was a key member of Finland’s 23 member-team, which, in fact, won as many gold medals as the United States’ 167 strong team.
Over the next 14 years, Nurmi shot to stardom, breaking record after record and winning another six Olympic gold medals. In fact, at the 1924 Paris Olympics, he finished first in the 1,500 and less than two hours later, took gold in the 5,000 meters. But Nurmi was unable to end his career with a gold medal in the 1932 Olympic marathon as he had hoped. Facing allegations of professionalism, Nurmi was suspended from international competition and retired shortly afterward.
As Salonen and Aunola tell me, Nurmi pursued his post-running career with the same steely determination. He was an astute businessman, earning a fortune through his work as a shopkeeper, a building contractor and share trader. Nurmi also became a passionate bowler, putting the prizes he won proudly on display while his running awards were hidden away.
Nurmi also became a passionate bowler, putting the prizes he won proudly on display while his running awards were hidden away.
According to Salonen and Aunola, Nurmi was infamously stubborn and reserved, even to the point that he initially refused to carry the torch at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Eventually persuaded by then prime minister, Urho Kekkonen, Nurmi entered the Olympic stadium to deafening cheers. Indeed, his appearance drew such excitement from the assembled athletes that they sprinted to the side of the track, hoping to see their hero run past.
In his later years, Nurmi suffered a heart attack. Concerned about the ever-increasing rate of cardiovascular diseases in Finland, Nurmi set up a foundation to support research into its causes and cures. But by the early 1970s Nurmi’s health had rapidly declined and on October 2 1973, the man known as the “Flying Finn,” took his last breath.
His story continues to live on, however, through the work undertaken by Salonen, Aunola and their team. In the summer, thousands of eager athletes took to the streets of Turku to run in the Paavo Nurmi Marathon. Salonen and Aunola say that their favorite activity is the Paavo Nurmi School Tour, where they share his achievements with primary school-aged children.
As I pack my camera away, I feel humbled to have visited the home of a man who has had such a profound impact on the nation I now call home. Preparing to leave, I ask Salonen and Aunola what they believe is Nurmi’s greatest legacy, and they reply, “when you have dreams, you have to be ready to work for them.”.
It is a lesson as timeless as it is timely.