Lasse Viren: Finland's Seb picks up the baton dropped by the Brits

Athlete turned politician is helping his country to stage a major event. Simon Turnbull in Helsinki meets a past master of the hard yards
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Outside the Soumen Eduskunta, the Finnish parliament building in the centre of Helsinki, the steps are frosting and the temperature needle is dipping below zero. Inside, in the bowels of the building, the member for Uusimaa, a district to the east of Helsinki, bounds into the warmth of an ante-chamber. His tanned, smiling face has a golden glow to it. As well it might.

Outside the Soumen Eduskunta, the Finnish parliament building in the centre of Helsinki, the steps are frosting and the temperature needle is dipping below zero. Inside, in the bowels of the building, the member for Uusimaa, a district to the east of Helsinki, bounds into the warmth of an ante-chamber. His tanned, smiling face has a golden glow to it. As well it might.

As a distance runner of unique distinction, Lasse Viren won four Olympic gold medals, twice as many as Kelly Holmes famously secured in Athens three months ago and twice as many as Sebastian Coe managed to gather in the course of his distinguished track career. As a politician, Viren has also won twice as many parliamentary races as Coe. Running as a candidate for the conservative Kokoomus, or "National Coalition", Party, Viren was victorious in 1999 and again in 2003. Coe was a Conservative winner in Falmouth and Camborne in 1992 but a loser in 1997.

Viren has something else that Coe does not. In the week that the British middle- distance great has formally lodged London's bid for the Olympic Games of 2012, the Flying Finn has been working on the preparations for a major sporting event his country has already secured. Viren is a member of the honorary committee for the 10th International Association of Athletics Federations' World Championships, which take place in Finland's capital between 6 and 14 August next year. These are the track-and-field world championships that should have been staged in London. The English capital won the bid to host them but then encountered one minor difficulty: it could not deliver a stadium in which to hold the world's major sporting event of 2005. A proposed national athletics stadium at Picketts Lock in north London proved to be an £87m pipe dream.

Up the road from the Eduskunta, a new track has already been laid at Helsinki's Olympic Stadium, the venue for the 1952 Olympics and the inaugural IAAF World Championships in 1983. A roof on the east stand will be completed long before the scheduled reopening, when the Dutch football team and Arjen Robben, the left-wing representative of Coe's beloved Chelsea, are in town for a World Cup qualifier on 8 June. The speed, efficiency and enthusiasm with which the Finns have picked up the dropped baton can only put Britain to shame. Their bid application took just seven weeks to formulate. It was accepted at an IAAF council meeting in Nairobi in April 2002, beating opposition from Rome, Moscow, Berlin, Brussels and Budapest. Viren was a member of their successful delegation.

So how does he feel as a politician, having helped to secure a major sporting event for his country? "The politics is on the sideline," Viren says, straightening his tie. "From the sport point of view, it is good for Finland. I am supporting the whole effort from that standpoint."

At 55, Viren looks as lean and fit as he was when he struck gold in the 5,000m and 10,000m at the 1972 Olympics in Munich and again at the 1976 Games in Montreal, a double-double no other athlete has achieved. His hair has greyed and his trademark clipped beard has given way to stubble, but the most noticeable difference is his sunny countenance - the beaming expression and the laughter lines set on his tanned face. It is rather different from the stern-faced look of the athlete with a gimlet eye fixed on Olympic gold.

Viren was knocked down and injured by a taxi while running through a Barcelona park in 1992, but he still trains twice a week. "In September I ran in the Lasse Viren 10km in Myrskala, my home village," he says. So where did he finish in his race? "Well," he says, amusedly pondering the question, "I did finish. I ran about 43 minutes."

Viren would have been excused had he failed to finish the first Olympic final he contested, the 10,000m in Munich in 1972. He tripped and fell after 4,600m but never took his eye off the gold, even though his rivals were moving away from him at world-record pace. He picked himself up off the floor, relieved David Bedford of the lead at the 6,000m point, and, while the British favourite faded to sixth, surged to victory in 27min 38.4sec, a world record.

When he won the 5,000m final 10 days later Viren became only the fourth man to complete the Olympic double at 5,000m and 10,000m, following in the footsteps of Hannes Kolehmainen, the first of the great Flying Finns of distance running, plus Emil Zatopek, the Czech star of the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, and the Russian Vladimir Kuts. When he did it again in Montreal, after four years of more modest achievement, the Myrskala policeman was asked whether the secret of his unprecedented success might be indulging in the practice of blood-boosting: the withdrawal and subsequent reinjection of blood, with the aim of increasing haemoglobin count and the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.

It is a question with which Viren has become all too familiar. "It doesn't bother me that people ask," he says, chuckling at the inevitability of the latest enquiry. "I know exactly what I did and what I didn't do. I know what happened at the time and I know that I didn't take any blood. If somebody is successful, quite often there are people around who invent all kind of things, trying to explain what happened."

In Montreal, speaking little English at the time and irked by the constant questioning of reporters, Viren said that the secret of his success was drinking reindeer milk. His facetiousness got lost in translation. "It was a joke," he says now, laughing again.

It was overlooked in the rush to find a neat explanation of this Finnish phenom-enon that Viren had done the hard yards as a distance runner. As far back as 1969, he had been the Finnish 5,000m champion; he had spent a year flogging himself on the US collegiate circuit before returning homesick from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah; and he had made the Finnish team for the 1971 European Championships in Helsinki, placing 17th in the 10,000m and seventh in the 5,000m.

He had also trained for long periods at high altitude, in South Africa, Brazil and Spain. His coach, Rolf Haikkola, had put him through the most thorough and rigorous of training schedules. And then there were the forests in which he trained around his beloved Myrskala, 50 miles north-east of Helsinki. "Training in the tranquillity of the woods builds mental strength," Viren reflects. "It also teaches you to break up the rhythm of your running, which you have to do in races, because there are so many roots to avoid."

It is from the grass roots of Myrskala that Viren has built his political career. He started in local government in the early 1980s and twice failed to gain election to the Finnish parliament before succeeding in 1999. "I drifted into politics," he says, candidly. "One step followed the other. It was not a great driving ambition. There are politicians who are aiming at the top, but there are others who have just been tempted because they are interested in social affairs. That is the case with me.

"I'm not as ambitious as a politician as I was as an athlete. I feel I'm more of a back-bencher than someone who wants to be on the front row. I sit on two government committees: agriculture and forestry, and transport and communications. I am happy to do that.

"In politics, it is different to sport. You cannot strictly define your goals, like aiming to be an Olympic gold-medallist. You are a lawmaker, and it is very difficult for one person to get legislation changed. It's a different type of work entirely."

The pragmatist in Viren tells him it will be difficult for his country to have much to shout about in the revamped Olympic Stadium next August, other than the successful staging of a memorable event. In the track-and-field world, it is fair to say that Finns aren't what they used to be. In Athens this year Finland failed to win an Olympic athletics medal for the first time.

"The same competitors will be in Helsinki, so it's going to be as tough, if not tougher," Viren says. "Of course you can always hope that someone will come through, but you have to be realistic."

There is always hope for the future longer-term - perhaps even that one day Finland might produce another Viren. The youngest of Viren's three sons, Matti, is a 17-year-old 800m runner. "Last year he was fourth in his age group at the national championships," Viren says, with not a little pride. "He ran 1 minute 57 seconds."

Not quite as quick, then, as his old man on the last two of the 25 laps of that 10,000m final in Munich 32 years ago. Viren smiles at the observation. Then a buzzer sounds on the wall of his office. The member for Uusimaa has a debate to attend, on the future of Finland's co-operation with north European states.

After warm wishes and a hearty shake of the hands, he is off and running, swiftly disappearing up the stairs to the debating chamber. The Finn who flew with a Midas touch still has a fair turn of speed.


Born: 22 July 1949, Myrskala, Finland.

Olympics: Munich 1972: 1st in 10,000m (world record, 27min 38.4sec); 1st in 5,000m (Olympic record, 13:26.4). Montreal 1976: 1st in 10,000m; 1st in 5,000m; fifth in marathon. Moscow 1980: 5th in 10,000m.

Other world records: 2 miles, 8:14.0, Stockholm 1972. 5,000m, 13:16.4, Helsinki 1972 (both still Finnish records).

Other championships: 1971 European Championships: 17th in 10,000m, 7th in 5,000m. 1974 European Champs, Rome: 3rd in 5,000m, 7th in 10,000m.

Personal bests: 1500m, 3:41.8; 3,000m, 7:43.2; two miles, 8:14.0; 5,000m, 13:16.4; 10,000m, 27:38.4; marathon, 2hr 13min 11sec.