Obituary: Viljo Heino

VILJO HEINO was the last of the original "Flying Finns" who dominated the world of long-distance running throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Heino twice set the world record for 10,000 metres and became European champion over the same distance, but after coming relatively late to track and field his career was severely interrupted by the Second World War.

Having broken through at the age of 25 with impressive times at both 5,000 and 10,000m in 1939, Heino received a bullet wound in the leg during the so-called "Winter War" between Finland and Russia at the end of that year. But he made a good enough recovery to return, both to the Russian front and to a rigorous training routine, often running with a pistol fixed to his belt in dangerous territory.

He won his first domestic championship medal in 1942 and two years later in Helsinki broke the 10,000m world record for the first time, taking the six-mile record in the same race and becoming a hero for a nation desperate to turn its attention away from the depression of the war.

Heino was born in Iitti, a picturesque village just a few miles from the border with the old Soviet Union, and grew up in the nearby town of Karhula. He became a member of the Karhula athletics club, but it took Heino many years of exercise to get rid of the stiffness in his muscles caused by the extremely physical nature of his work at the local sawmill.

Immediately after the war, at the European Championships in Oslo, Heino won gold in the 10,000m and finished fifth in the 5,000m, just ahead of a young Czech named Emile Zatopek who was beginning to make his mark on the world stage. The pair, who became lifelong friends, met again several times over the course of the next three years, Zatopek's astonishingly laboured action contrasting sharply with the unusually fluent and graceful running style of Heino.

In 1947, coached temporarily by Paavo Nurmi, the most famous of the "Flying Finns", Heino won the British AAA title over six miles, but a combination of foot and stomach problems led to him dropping out of the Olympic 10,000m final in London the following year. Heino's "failure" was not well received by a fickle Finnish public, and he became the object of a considerable hate-mail campaign.

Determined not to go out on such a low note, Heino was gearing himself up that winter for one last assault on his 10,000m world record when his wife died suddenly, leaving Heino and their four children behind. Despite this, and despite Zatopek taking his world record the following June, Heino recaptured it on 1 September 1949, five years after setting his first world record.

His time of 29min 27.2sec fell to Zatopek again a month later but stood as a Finnish record for 10 years, by which time Heino had become chairman of the Karhula club. His latter years were spent coaching young athletes, who rarely failed to disappoint him through their unwillingness to make the kind of sacrifices Heino himself had made to his sport.

Viljo Akseli Heino, athlete: born Iitti, Finland 1 March 1914; twice married twice (four children); died Tampere, Finland 15 September 1998.

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