Fox's 20th Century: Athletics - 1920-25: Paavo Nurmi

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The Independent Online
BETWEEN 1921 and 1931 Paavo Nurmi, the "Flying Finn", set 29 world records from 1,500 to 20,000 metres and won nine Olympic gold medals. Such versatility makes it difficult to oppose anyone who claims that he was the greatest track athlete of all time.

His Olympic golds came in 1920 (when he won the 10,000m, the individual cross-country and one for the cross-country team event), 1924 (1,500m, 5,000m, 3,000m team event and two in cross-country) and 1928 (10,000m). He would probably have added to his total in 1932 but he was disqualified on the grounds of professionalism.

He was born in Turku in 1897 and developed his remarkable fitness by becoming an errand boy at the age of 13, running with a pushcart up and down steep streets to earn a living. His father had died and a family of six, who lived in one room, had to be supported. He became a vegetarian not by choice but because of poverty. His early worries probably led to him becoming an unsmiling, serious runner who always held a watch which dictated his pace.

His most astonishing achievement came shortly before the 1924 Olympics when he set a world record for the 1,500m and an hour later broke the 5,000m record. He then won Olympic gold for those distances with only an a hour and a half between races. His first world record (six miles, which lasted 15 years) had been set in 1921 by which time he was already an Olympic champion, having succeeded his idol, Hannes Kolehmainen, with his 10,000m victory, but he was also a silver medal winner in the 5,000m. As well as winning a gold in 1928, he won silver in the 5,000m and steeplechase.

He was aiming to win the 1932 Olympic marathon when he was banned. Had he been allowed to run there is little doubt that he would have succeeded since his training suggested a time within 2hr 30min whereas the race itself was won in 2hr 31min. The longevity of his records also proclaimed his ability - his 10-mile record lasted for almost 17 years.

At his peak in 1925 he lost only once. His exacting programme included indoor races in the United States, where other Europeans had failed miserably. In one, the two miles, his time of 8:58.2 was 11 seconds faster than the official outdoor record.

Naturally, he was chosen to carry the torch at the opening ceremony of the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki. He died in 1973 but his statue stands outside the stadium.