Paavo Nurmi – The Flying Finn

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Paavo Nurmi – The Flying Finn


Paavo Nurmi is considered by many experts the greatest athlete of all time and he is part of IAAF Hall of Fame. Nurmi was an introvert runner, which paid more attention to his bulky stopwatch than to his opponents. The King of Runners was the first athlete that believed the records are meant to be broken and there is no limit for the human body. Paavo Nurmi established 22 world records ranging from 1500 m to 20 km, a record in running that was equaled only by Haile Gebrselassie. Moreover, The Flying Finn set another 36 unofficial word records during his 14 years career.

Paavo Johannes Nurmi was born on 13 June 1897 in Turku. He was born in a poor family, being the eldest of the five children. Nurmi had to walk many kilometers to get to school. The little Finn loved running from an early age and frequently ran six kilometers to swim to Ruisalo. Paavo Nurmi was able to run a mile in 5:02 minutes at the age of 11. Despite being an eminent student, Nurmi had to quit school at the age of 12 because his father died of haemoptysis and his family was in financial struggle. He became errand boy for a bakery and started pushing, dragging carts and lugging sacks on Turku’s sleep slopes. Paavo Nurmi later credited his errands boy period for building up his strength and muscle mass.

The Flying Finn restarted running at the age of 15. He was inspired by the feats of his compatriot, of Hannes Kolehmainen, who won 3 gold medals in 1912 Stockholm Summer Olympics (1500 m, 3000 m and cross-country individual).  Paavo Nurmi trained for cross country running in the summer and cross skying in the winter. Nurmi won his first 3000 m race in 1914. He joined the army in 1919 and that was the place where Nurmi fully developed his athletic skills. In his first army year, Nurmi and his unit had to participate in a 20 km march. All the soldiers were fully equipped with a rifle, cartridge belt and a backpack full of sand. Most of the soldiers barely finished the march by walking slowly. Paavo Nurmi ran the entire course and was immediately noticed by his unit commander, Hugo Österman, who was a sports fan. Österman gave Nurmi free time to prepare for athletic competitions.

Paavo Nurmi set his first national record in May 1920. He set the national record in 3000 m race. Nurmi won the 1500 m and 5000 m Olympic trials in July 1920. The Flying Finn was running at a shattering pace in the first laps making it almost impossible for the opponents to catch him during the slower last laps.

Paavo Nurmi - The Flying Finn

Nurmi debuted in the Olympics in the 5000 m. He finished second, behind the Frenchman Joseph Guillemot, who overtook Nurmi on the final lap. It was Nurmi’s only defeat against a Non-Finish in Olympics. Even though the Finn was heavily dishearten by losing the 5000 m,  Nurmi found the strength and the resilience to win the 10000 m race (beating Joseph Guillemot in the final curve and improving his personal best with more than one minute), the cross country race and cross country team event.

The loss in the 5000 m made Nurmi to change his tactic and turn him into an automaton that was running even-paced laps. Paavo Nurmi started some training experiments in order to improve his running technique. The Finn started carrying a stopwatch in order to distribute his pace more uniformly over the course of the race. Nurmi shattered any opposition by reeling off lap after lap at the same exact pace. Paavo Nurmi set his first 10000 m world record in 1921, then broke the world records for the 2000 m, 3000m and the 5000m in 1922. Nurmi set the world record for the mile and 1500 m in 1923, being the only athlete ever to simultaneously hold the world records for the mile, the 5000 m and 10000 m.

Nurmi’s performance in the 1924 Paris Summer Olympics are unbelievable. Paavo Nurmi had to run the 1500 m and the 5000 m finals in less than an hour. The Flying Finn set a new Olympic record in the 1500 m, missing the world record by only a second. In less than an hour, Paavo Nurmi won another gold medal and set another Olympic record in the 5000 m race. Nurmi’s main opponent, Ville Ritola, tried to profit from Paavo’s tiredness from the 1500 m race. Nevertheless, Nurmi’s resilience and inhuman strength prevailed and The King of Runners reeled off lap after lap, never varying his pace or stride, and managed to win the gold medal in 5000 m race. That was Thursday, but Nurmi did not stop. He ran in 3000 m team track race heats on Friday, running with the ease of a tireless machine. Moreover, Paavo Nurmi won the cross country race on a torrid weather (45 degrees Celsius) on Saturday. Even though only 15 runners finished the cross country because of the extreme heat, Nurmi did not seem to troubled by the weather and won the gold medal. Paavo finished a minute and a half ahead of Ville Ritola. Nurmi’s seventh race in six days was on Sunday in the 3000 m team track final. The Flying Finn completed his amazing Olympics performance with another medal, showing that his desire to win goes beyond any human limit.

The legend says that Paavo Nurmi unofficially won the 10000 m also. He was not allowed by the managerial team to compete in the 10000 m in order to be fit for the 1500 m and 5000 m finals. The King of Runners was so furious that he decided to run the 10000 m on the warm-up track. Ville Ritola won the gold medal and set a new world record 30:23.2, but on the track field Paavo Nurmi crossed the finished line after 29:58 minutes.

Nurmi burned out his energy in the 1925 American tour. He ran in 55 events in only 5 months, setting new records for the 5000 m and the mile and other unofficial indoor records. The Flying Fin won 51 of those events, abandoned one and finished second 3 times. His final race part of the American tour was a half a mile race, which he finished second and ending his 121-race win streak in individual races from 800 m upwards.

Paavo Nurmi set another world record in 3000 m in 1926. However, he lost the 1500 m race ending his five years long 133-race winning streak on distances over 1000m.

The Flying Finn had his revenge against Ritola in the 10000 m Olympic race in 1928. Nurmi sprinted past Ritola on the last home straight and set a new Olympic record. An injured Paavo finished only second in the Olympic 5000 m and in the 3000m steeplechase.  In the 3000 m steeplechase Nurmi struggled jumping over the hurdles. He even felt flat on the face in the water jump during the heats.

Nurmi’s record of 9 gold Olympic medal was achived by only one other track and field athlete: Carl Lewis. The Finn ranks second in the most Olympic medals top (12 – 9 golds and 3 silvers).

Nurmi felt that is becoming old and that he could no longer compete in short distances. He set new world records for 15 km (46:49.6), 10 miles (50:15.0) and one hour run (19.21 km) in late 1928. The Finn set a new world record in 20 km (1:04:38.4) in 1930. The King of Runners was the first athlete to win the two mile race in less than nine minutes (8:59.6).


The Flying Finn prepared for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic marathon. He finished the Olympic trials in 2:22:03.8, covering the old-style marathon distance (40.2km). Unfortunately, Paavo Nurmi could not compete in the 1932 Olympics because he was banned by IAAF in a dispute over his amateur status.

Paavo Nurmi represented inspiration for other important athletes like Emil Zatopek. The Finn ran faster, further and for more seasons than anyone else in his period. Nurmi was the first athlete to introduce the evenly paced run for long distance running, and improved the training methods by varying long distance with interval running. The Flying Finn believed in his mental strength to conquer the records and go beyond any human mind. He was more interested in time, than in the opponents and his courage, determination and perseverance put him among the legendary figures of athletics.

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