No athlete this century has evoked such universal admiration as Paavo Nurmi - the Finnish runner supreme.
The son of a carpenter, Nurmi was born in Turku, on Finland's south-west coast, in 1897. At various stages of his amazing athletic career Paavo Nurmi won a total of 40 world records, including every race from 1500 metres to 20 kilometres. During the course of three Olympic Games he won nine gold medals and three silvers.
At the Paris Olympics in 1924 Nurmi won the finals of the 1500 metres and 5000 metres on the same evening with just one hour's rest in between. During the ten-kilometre crosscountry race most of the runners succumbed to the severe heat, while Nurmi's speed, strength and endurance put him in a class of his own; he broke the tape at full speed and half a kilometre ahead of his nearest rival.
When Helsinki's turn came in 1952 to host the Olympics, the 55-year-old Paavo Nurmi entered the stadium bearing the Olympic torch with the same old spring in his step. Competitors from 70 countries broke ranks spontaneously and rushed over to applaud their idol -the man who had come to epitomize the endurance, will-power and self-discipline that all aspiring athletes strive for. Urho Kekkonen, the former Finnish president and Paavo Nurmi's close friend and contemporary as an international athlete (in the high-jump), once said that the key element behind Nurmi's exceptional achievements was his character. In truth he was determined to the point of being stubborn, relentless and even merciless. He also had a good brain to devise his own training programmes, the courage to set his sights high, and the strength of mind to stay focused on his goals until he achieved them.
He brought all these faculties to bear on the second career he forged following his many years as a competition athlete. Over the succeeding 30 years he developed a legendary reputation as a successful building constructor and financier. Here, too, he displayed an inexhaustible zest for work and, once again, was highly successful. As in sports training where he ultimately only ever trusted his own judgement and experience, in business life, too, he proved to be a determinedly independent man. Although Nurmi's business interests widened over the years, building activities always retained a central role, bringing him wealth and yet further success.
Paavo Nurmi always took great care of his physical health and condition right up to the end of his life. At the age of 60 he suffered from myocardial infarction, despite the absence of the known risk factors: his blood pressure and cholesterol were both normal, and he was a non-smoker and still physically active. Ten years on he suffered a stroke, and he died from multiple complications of atherosclerosis in 1973 at the age of 76. Paavo Nurmi ended up struggling more with his disease than for all his world records and Olympic medals.