News13 Aug 2005

‘Nurmi on Nurmi’ – son of 'Flying Finn' legend speaks about his father


Paavo Nurmi - 1924 Olympics (© Getty Images)

Sitting in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium on Saturday, penultimate day of the 10th IAAF World Championships in Athletics, one spectator above all others will have cause to marvel at the feats of the competitors.

He will watch the women's 5000 metres with particular interest. When his father first held the World record at this distance, with a time of 14:35.4, in 1922, women were not allowed to run any event in the Olympic Games.

Yet that time, by Paavo Nurmi, has now been smashed by 11 women, and the favourite this weekend, Tirunesh Dibaba, has already won the 10,000m in a time 16 seconds quicker than Nurmi's first world best at that distance.

Records will always be broken. As Paavo observed on their ephemeral nature, on his 75th birthday, "worldly fame and reputation are worth less than a rotten lingonberry."

International Fame

Yet when it came to fame and reputation, no athlete in his day surpassed that of Nurmi. Yet his reclusive nature kept the world at arm's length. He granted few interviews, and fewer still to his own countrymen. It led to mystique and misinformation surrounding his name, but this week, his son, Matti, cast significant light on one of the giants of the sport.

Matti said he was doing it as a mark of respect to his country on the return of the world event to the country where they began.

Like his father he shuns publicity, and for the same reason. He wants a life of his own, but as he prepared to visit the stadium where his father lit the 1952 Olympic flame, he agreed to speak.

He invited me to his home town, Turku, and graciously walked me from the station to the home where his father grew up. Reclusive even then, he dodged through the hedge to go running, so that the neighbours would not see him.

"They wrote that he trained, racing against the trains," he said. "That was not true. It's just part of the nonsense made up about my father."

 National monument - Renovation of family house

The wood and brick house used to be a run down squat in the shade of a giant ash tree. It was hard to believe that the single room where drug addicts were shooting up could have been the home where Paavo grew up. A carpenter's son in a family of four children, he became the greatest distance runner ever.

That's how it was when the inaugural World Championships were held in 1983, and we first tried to trace the descendants of the Phantom Finn who remains the iconic athlete of the twentieth century. He set 58 official and unofficial World records/bests indoors and out, winning nine Olympic titles and three silver medals. There may have been more, but for jealous Swedes orchestrating a ban for professionalism. Many Finns have not forgiven this yet.

Sisu and business acumen

Nurmi was ruthless as well as reserved, but nobody more embodied ‘sisu’, a quality much commended by Finns: willpower, determination, and stamina, transcending accepted limits.

Yet his son, with whom he had an uneasy relationship, admires his father more for his business acumen and stock market expertise than his legendary athletics.

"He started a construction business from his back pocket, without even an office," says Matti Nurmi, patting his hip. "The company built 40 blocks of flats with 100 apartments in each."

When his father died, the bulk of a considerable fortune went to a foundation in his name, for research into heart disease. "I only got a part." He confides this without rancour. He himself is a very wealthy self-made man, owning companies ranging from textiles to furniture, tools to car spares. He once had a sales force in every Western European country and the US.

In his first interview for many years, Matti ushers me through the door of his father's boyhood home in Jarrumiehenkatu, near Turku's railway station, some two hours north of Helsinki. It was lovingly restored in 1997 by Turun Urheilulitto, the town's athletics club, marking the centenary of Nurmi's birth. It is a shrine to a sporting legend. The outside toilet, and the addicts, have gone.

The tiny beds are those his grandparents slept in, with original pristine hand-embroidered pillow cases. The cabin trunk which his father carried to races around the world, stands in a corner. On top is a pile of original newspapers in which his exploits are extolled, and several of his medals. In the corner stands an old gramaphone. On it, ready to play, is a Decca recording of military marches, Marssisikerna. "My father did gymnastics to that music every night, and was in bed by nine, ordering everyone to be quiet, which annoyed his sisters," says Matti.


Nurmi stands with Emil Zatopek as the most revered endurance figure in the history of athletics. Even the Czech, who won a unique three Olympic golds here in 1952, trained as a boy chanting: "I am Nurmi! I am Nurmi!"

One feat defines the Finn. In 1924 he set a World 1500m record of 3:53.6 and returned 50 minutes later to break the 5000m record (14:28.2) for the second time. It was merely a training session, to replicate the schedule for the Paris Olympics where he took both titles.

Nurmi in his day was an icon to match Pele or Ali, though denied the same affection. He rarely gave interviews, least of all in Finland. This trait has been inherited by his son. Yet when Paavo emerged from obscurity two decades after his ban, aged 55, to light the flame for the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, many of the crowd are reported to have wept.

Matti, who was there, recalls dryly: "I think these emotions are exaggerated, perhaps a little bit. It does not mean as much as you think . . . Certainly not in Sweden. They brought the suspension on my father.”

"And I remember my father was very angry that I had come to Helsinki to watch. I was in a summer job in Turku, and he said I should not have left the job."

He is private, like his father. "He did not give many interviews because he wanted his own family life. I too. That has helped our family a lot. We are a normal family here in Finland. Other children at school did not know my family's background. That's a very good thing."

Running in the family

He married late, aged 48, and has a 26-year-old daughter, Nora, and son Mikka, 23. "My son ran a little bit, but not now. I have not tried to push him. Even my father has not pushed me. My daughter may one day have sons who run, she has a beautiful running style."

Matti himself was a very decent athlete. On July 11 1957, in his home town, three of his countrymen dipped under the world 1500 metres record (Olavi Salsola and Olavi Salonen both clocked 3:40.2 and Olavi Vuorisalo ran 3:40.3). Nurmi was ninth in 3:54.8. The record stood for just 23 hours. The Czech, Stanislav Jungwirth, smashed it with 3:38.1.

Though Matti had got within 2.2 seconds of his father's former world best 33 years earlier, he never learned what he thought of it. "We never discussed about my running . . . he never said what I should do with sport.”

"That was the best I ever ran for 1500m, but I was already running a textile business. I was 25, and had a tie factory working even through the night. We still have it.”

"My best time was in 3000m. I ran the same as my father, but that was many years after him. I had a better time at 800m than my father, I think at about 1:53.”

"My father was a very realistic person. Perhaps he did not think that I had a chance to be something in sport, but in business he was very happy with me.”

"We never discussed whether I was a disappointment as an athlete. He had his own opinions, would answer if I asked, but never volunteer.”

"He was very strong in all parts of his life, for himself and others. His own life was very modest. He demanded a lot of others, including me . . . Was it difficult being the athlete son of Paavo Nurmi? The expectation? A little bit. You could not be yourself."

He recalls difficulties staying with his father in Helsinki: "I was very happy when I came back to Turku, because living with my father was not easy."

If sisu characterises the father, the son says he is best defined by "Tarkka" - precise. "I look carefully at what I am doing."

 Remembered in chocolate

He remains aloof from Finnish athletics. "I don't speak to the federation. They have not invited me to the World championships, but I will still be there."

His father's image, a classic running figure, appears on boxes of chocolates. Finland may have forgotten Matti Nurmi, for which he is genuinely happy, but the sweet manufacturers have not. They have sent him free tickets.

As he enters the stadium, he will pass a classic bronze of his father, on which a wreath is laid on the anniversary of his birth and death each year.

He has little expectation from today's Europeans. "You can't hold all the distance records now, with the Africans," he says. "We live too easily here. Our living standards are too high. Nobody wants to give enough time. Perhaps we are soft.”

"A heel injury stops me running now, but I play tennis three times a week." At 72, he still works, and chairs his father's foundation. "Yes, most people would have retired. You could say I am driven. I take no income from the businesses, because I would be taxed at 70%. Perhaps my father's legacy is that I must work hard. My firms are like sport, the same feeling: you must win, and be the best."

Doug Gillon - The Herald - the IAAF

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