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The Little Giant of the Olympics

The modern Olympic Games began in Athens in 1896. Finland's history of victories in them is nearly as old, spanning the 90 years from the second Olympiad in Athens in 1906 to Atlanta 1996. The centenary of the birth of one of the greatest Olympic athletes of all time, Finland's Paavo Nurmi, was celebrated in 1997.

The Finnish contribution to the Olympics has been very central, indeed quite unique for a small country. In the period since 1906, it has won at least one gold medal in every Olympiad, a distinction that only four other countries can point to. The Finns' have done best in the 5,000 and 10,000 metre running events, in which they have won overwhelmingly more medals than any other country. Indeed, there have often been enough good Finnish runners to ensure that two or even three of them could stand together on the victors' podium at the medal ceremony.

The first of the great Finnish runners was the hero of the Stockholm (1912) and Antwerp (1920) games Hannes Kolehmainen. "Smiling Hannes", as he was nicknamed, was an inspirational figure who, as the saying goes, "ran Finland onto the world map".

The next to bear the standard onwards on the trail blazed by Kolehmainen was Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn" and the greatest long-distance runner of them all. In addition to his nine Olympic victories, he set a total of 31 world records. The records have been surpassed many times in the meantime, but no one has ever been able to better Nurmi's sheer superiority and the indomitable confidence that he demonstrated at meet after meet, year-in year-out. Indeed, it was always said that Nurmi was racing the clock, not the other competitors.

Paavo Nurmi's range of mastery was unequalled in his time. For many years he was unbeatable over any distance between 1,500 and 10,000 metres. If his time in the only marathon that he ran is anything to go by, he can also be regarded as the best of his era over that distance as well.

Paavo Nurmi, who died in 1973, is still one of the best-known and most highly-respected Finns of all time. In physical culture, he belongs in the same heavyweight series as Jean Sibelius in the field of musical culture.

Lasse Viren
Image size 5 Kb Finland has produced great running stars also in the decades since the golden ones before the Second World War. The great moments in Finnish track and field include the Munich double in 1972, when Lasse Viren (10,000 m) and Pekka Vasala (1,500 m) won gold medals within half an hour of each other. Viren fell during the race, but nevertheless won and set a world record at the same time. He also won the 5,000 metres and collected two more gold medals in the same events in Montreal in 1976.

History provides an explanation of why sport has such a very special place in the heart of this small nation. Despite constantly stiffening competition and the enormous growth of the games, Finland will continue to have her Olympic heroes. They could well be representatives of the disciplines in which the Finns have traditionally been strong, running, javelin and wrestling, or they could be the elite of the new disciplines that are gathering strength. One example is swimming, where the land of thousands of lakes has been coming up with world record-breakers in recent years.

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Centenary of the
Flying Finn's birth
The legendary runner Paavo Nurmi was born in Turku on 13.6.1897 and the centenary year of that event is being celebrated in a style worthy of his greatness. The first official event was in January, when the Turku City Theatre staged a dance performance commemorating Nurmi's achievements.

The Turku Sports Club, Nurmi's own, began the year with a exhibition of photographs and the runner's Olympic certificates, which show that he won nine gold medals. A postage stamp honouring Nurmi was issued in March.

From 10-13 June, the first half of the actual Nurmi Jubilee Week, the Paavo Nurmi Centre in Turku arranged an international congress, to attract an impressive number of famous participants.

On 12 June the Flying Finn's home arena was inaugurated as the Paavo Nurmi Stadium, after which the Paavo Nurmi Games began immediately. The women's disciplines were 100 m, 5000 m, javelin and long jump, the men's 100 m, 110 m hurdles, pole vault, javelin and shot as well as the Paavo Nurmi Challenge (1500 + 5000 m). There was a break of only 50 minutes between the two races, because at the Paris Olympics in 1924 Paavo Nurmi set his two world records (3,52.6 and 14,28.3) with only 55 minutes rest between the two races.

The biggest celebration of them all was in Helsinki on 13 June, the legend's birthday. The last but by no means least event of the jubilee year took place in the form of the Paavo Nurmi Marathon in Turku on 6 July.

Theatrical comeback

Paavo Nurmi attracted yet another huge crowd to Helsinki's Olympic Stadium in August 2000, this time in the role of an opera hero. The libretto for the opera about the great runner was written by the renowned Finnish author Paavo Haavikko and the music was composed by Tuomas Kantelinen. The spectacular in the Stadium was a co-production between the City Theatre and the Helsinki - European City of Culture 2000 project.

Life story - Paavo Nurmi Centennial