Arena: A tribute to towering elegance: Norman Fox recalls the great games and names that have graced Helsinki's ageless Olympiastadion

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The Independent Online
THE show was nearly over. The fat lady was awaiting her chance. You would have thought that in her white flowing dress and wearing a veil, she would have looked slightly out of place among the blazered athletes marching round the track, but nobody at the opening ceremony of the 1952 Olympics took much notice until she breathlessly ascended the official rostrum and began to address the crowd.

The German woman got as far as the microphone and attempted to tell the world about 'peace', which was the only word she managed before an official finally realised she was not the president of Finland and peacefully hustled her away. The Helsinki Olympics, centred on the stadium where the European athletics championships start on Sunday, could then commence.

In 1952 the war-weary peace that had allowed London to celebrate the Games four years earlier had become more coldly draped in the Iron Curtain. Russians, appearing in the Olympics for the first time since 1912, Hungarians, Poles, Bulgarians, Romanians and Czechs all entered, but not in the spirit of the movement. In a criticised compromise, the International Olympic Committee agreed that the Eastern Bloc countries could house themselves in separate accommodation away from the official athletes' village near the stadium.

As the Games unfolded, the Soviet Union gathered what seemed to be an unassailable lead in the medals table (starting with a gold in the women's discus by Nina Romanschkova, who some years later was arrested in London for stealing a hat from C & A in Oxford Street). So much so that their athletes built a big scoreboard in the private village showing the lead; they quickly took it down when the United States won five boxing gold medals and the lead.

The Olympic stadium had been completed in 1939 on the promise of holding the 1940 Olympics. The war intervened. But when the Games did eventually come, Helsinki put on a remarkable show in surroundings that were simple, practical and ageless.

Naturally, the flame had to be carried by Finland's greatest athlete, Paavo Nurmi, who had won 12 Olympic medals. But the Finns were told by the IOC that Nurmi was not welcome because, so they said, he had broken the code of amateurism. Ever so politely, the Finnish authorities told the IOC that if they wanted to explain that to the Finnish people they were more than welcome. So the 55- year-old, rheumatic but suddenly rekindled Nurmi entered the stadium, torch held high, to a hero's welcome.

Nurmi watched another extraordinary athlete, Emil Zatopek, dominate the track events, winning the 5,000 metres, 10,000m and then the marathon while his wife, Dana, brought the family gold- medal tally to four by winning the javelin. Luxemburg's whole team would have been delighted to get four medals of any colour, so when Josef Barthel, the totally unexpected winner of the 1500m and conqueror of Roger Bannister, went to the rostrum he spent several minutes happily crying his eyes out while the conductor searched for the score for Luxemburg's national anthem.

Harold Abrahams, the elder statesman of British athletics, said at the time that above all he coveted the electric scoreboard: 'I shall not die happy unless we manage to procure one in Great Britain.'

All the Olympic drama was played out in the shadow of the elegant white tower on the edge of the stadium that dominates the surrounding areas and has attracted more than 3 million visitors. According to legend it was built 77.22m high, exactly the distance of Mattie Jarvinen's 1936 world javelin record. It sounds like the sort of thing they would do in a country where javelin competitions can draw bigger crowds than football matches played by the stadium's resident club, HJK.

The architect was not inclined to deny a good but apocryphal story which was repeated ad nauseam in 1983 when the stadium held the first athletics world championships and Finland's great tradition in the javelin continued. Tiina Lillak overcame the crowd's expectancy and the power of Fatima Whitbread to win with her final throw. The celebrations that night defied all preconceived ideas about sober, undemonstrative Finns.

The first world championships had been approached with scepticism but in the end everyone went to Helsinki, not least Carl Lewis, who won three gold medals, Mary Decker, who dispatched the formidable Eastern European challenge in both the 1500m and 3,000m, and Daley Thompson, winner of the decathlon. The only disappointment was that Seb Coe fell ill and was unable to race against Steve Ovett and Steve Cram.

Because of unkind weather the recently renovated stadium rarely provides opportunities for records, but it has a special place in athletics history in a country where track and field has always been appreciated more than anywhere else in the world.

(Photograph omitted)

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