News28 Nov 2004

A tribute to the career of Gunder Hägg


Arne Andersson (l) and Gunder Hägg (r) (© Time Life / Getty Images)

Renowned Swedish Athletics historian and statistican Lennart Julin gives his own personal tribute to the life and career of Gunder Hägg.

Usually it takes a number of Olympic gold medals to achieve the status as a true legend of our sport but Swedish runner Gunder Hägg - who on Saturday passed away at the age of 85, click here for original news story - belonged to a very select group of extraordinary athletes who have managed to become icons despite lack of Olympic success.

The athletic career of Gunder Hägg was such that had he been born in the USA it would – without the need for any additions to the bare facts – certainly have been used as script for a sentimental Hollywood film because the story contained just about every element of drama, emotion, success and failure needed.

It all began on New Year’s Eve 1918 when Gunder Hägg was born on a small farm in the forests of northern Sweden. From a fairly early age he had to help out on the family farm where the main income came from timber work. His school was three kilometres away a distance which he walked, ran or travelled by ski (in the winter) every day.

Kälarne’s inspiration

However, serious competitive sports was not really something he considered until he and his father started to hear about the running success of a six years older boy from a nearby village. That boy Henry Jonsson (later Henry Kälarne) thanks to his athletic ability had not only become famous but also - and more importantly - got a good job in the fire brigade in “the big city”.

This kindled thoughts of “If Henry – why not also me?” and one summer day in 1936 Hägg’s father measured a 750m course on a trail in the woods and asked him to run this course back and forth, while he (the father) would time the run on the alarm clock, and when he came back his father reported his time was 4:45.

That was the decisive moment and Hägg started to compete in local meets and ended the year with personal best of 4:14 and 16:11. Times which are still quite respectable for a 17 years old beginner.

Already the following year the whole nation became fully aware of this exceptional talent from the province of Jämtland: He was invited to compete for the first time in the Stockholm Olympic Stadium and finished 4th in 8:36.8 in an international 3000m race. At age 18!

The following year he got his first national championships medal when finishing 2nd in the steeplechase (!) and his plans for 1939 were ambitious. However, a serious case of pneumonia disrupted all plans and when he left the hospital he was told by the doctor that he had better give up all plans of returning to competitive sport.

But Hägg did not listen to that advice, instead while doing his military service in northernmost Sweden during a very cold winter he started training intensely more or less every day by running in deep snow. And when the summer came he suddenly found he had arrived in the world elite.

Two races - although he lost both to Henry Kälarne - stood out: On 4 August Hägg finished just a fraction behind Kälarne’s national record equalling 3:48.8 and on 14 August he ran 8:11.8 for 3000m which was three seconds faster than the old World record but only good for 2nd in the race.

The magic summer of 1942

Gunder Hägg’s first World record of his own came in 1941 when he won the Swedish 1500m title in 3:47.6 lowering Jack Lovelock’s winning time from the 1936 Olympics by two tenths. But it was 1942 that would become Hägg’s “Year of years”. In late summer of 1941 he was suspended for a minor infringement of the amateur rules, and he was not allowed to compete until 1 July 1942.

Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise as he was able to bulk up on both mental and physical energy and he certainly returned “with a bang”: In a Mile race in Göteborg he won a hard fought battle with Arne Andersson in the new World record of 4:06.2. This signalled the beginning of a truly amazing period of twelve weeks that would contain no less than ten new world records!

1 July: 4:06.2 (1 mile)
3 July: 8:47.8 (2 miles)
17 July: 3:45.8 (1500m)
21 July: 5:16.4 (2000m)
23 August: 5:11.8 (2000m)
28 August: 8:01.2 (3000m)
4 September: 4:04.6 (1 mile)
11 September: 13:35.4 (3 miles)
20 September: 13:32.4 (3 miles) and 13:58.2 (5000m)

One can but speculate how much longer the list would have been had he not lost a couple of weeks of training in late July and early August due to illness. And as he still was only 23 years old one would assume that even greater things were about to be achieved in years to come.

US tour and loss of record condition

However, things do not always go according to plans and although training was progressing better than ever in the spring of 1943 no new records came, because Hägg accepted an invitation to compete in the USA, and the long Atlantic crossing by boat at the height of the 2nd World War destroyed his form completely.

Some desperate “crash training” upon arrival managed to restore enough to compete successfully on US soil during that summer but the World record capacity was gone. And even worse: He actually lost two of his records as compatriot Arne Andersson running back home in Sweden snatched the top marks at both 1500m and 1 mile.

Back in Sweden Hägg began preparing for 1944 with the aim of reclaiming the lost records. He did manage in the 1500m when a memorable battle at Slottsskogsvallen in Gothenburg ended with Andersson taking one full second off his World record time but still losing by another full second as Hägg ran 3:43.0! But when they met over the mile distance eleven days later it was Andersson who prevailed in the new World record of 4:01.6 with Gunder four tenths behind.

Despite running faster than ever in those two races – and lowering his 2 miles World record twice – it was obvious that Hägg was not as good as in the magic summer of 1942 when he was truly untouchable running 32 races and winning all them with apparent ease. Arne Andersson now won four of their five encounters.

It seemed as if Hägg had lost that mental spark and that became even more apparent in 1945. He ran over thirty races that summer but only one truly outstanding: On 17 July in Malmö he and Arne once more faced each other over the One Mile distance and the race was won by Gunder in 4:01.4, two tenths quicker than Andersson’s World record.

No where near his physical peak

Having accomplished his mission of reclaiming the lost records Hägg seemed to be content. Actually he had every now and then indicated that he was not that interested in running as such seeing it as a means rather than as an end in itself. And he had indeed accomplished his and his father’s initial ambitions of using the running ability as a “social lever”: In 1941 he got the job on the fire brigade in Gävle and three years later he moved to Malmö when through the athletics club MAI was offered a job in clothing store.

Therefore he afterwards said that the life time suspension for violating the amateur rules he received from the Swedish Athletics Association on 17 March 1946 came more or less as a welcome relief: The perfect excuse which meant that without any regrets he could go on with the rest of his life! He probably never worried over having only three individual national titles (1500m in 1941, 5000m in 1944 and 1945), having never competed in any international championship or having just five appearances in international matches

Most likely he also never cared for the fact that his record times were nowhere near his peak physical abilities. Looking at intermediate times (1500m) and lack of competition (5000m) it appears that he in 1942 could have run times like 3:40/13:45 and he certainly missed the opportunity to run the first sub-4 mile. Because if you run 4:01 when not in top shape and after a 56.6 opening lap it is obvious that a 3:57/3:58 was in the cards in a “perfect” race.

But it is just us fans that have worried about that, not Gunder himself. He already had the records so why bother? And he still certainly made his mark in athletics history: He lowered the 1500m record by 4.8 s, the mile by 5.0 s, the 2000m by 5.0 s, the 3000m by 7.8 s, the 2 miles by 10.4 s, the 3 miles by 10.0 s and the 5000m by 10.6 s! Furthermore: At the main distances (1500m, 1 Mile and 5000m) his records stood until 1954, i.e. for about a decade!

Never forgotten

But despite the fact that Gunder Hägg only was an athlete for a very brief period of his long life he was - and will always continue to be - remembered for his extraordinary athletic accomplishments. His name has never been forgotten in Sweden and whenever a new middle distance talent emerges comparisons with Hägg are inevitable. Even as late as this summer the media were quick to notice that his legendary 3:43.0 would have been leading the Swedish list for 2004 – a full 60 years later!!

What, however, probably will be forgotten – and certainly never understood - by future generations is the role “Gunder Hägg the World record runner” had as an inspiring national symbol for a small nation on the fringes of being engulfed by WW2. He and his accomplishments transcended the sports environment and installed confidence, optimism and pride in the whole Swedish people in a very crucial period in its history.

Lennart Julin for the IAAF

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