SI Vault
William Johnson
July 17, 1972
For some champions the Olympics have meant enduring fame, for others they are only the memory of a transcendent instant of glory
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July 17, 1972

After The Golden Moment

For some champions the Olympics have meant enduring fame, for others they are only the memory of a transcendent instant of glory

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To the world, Olympic heroes tend to endure at their moment of victory. Flushed with youth, exalted by triumph, they are crystallized in time. Perhaps that is the essence of the Olympics—a single, intense, theatrical instant shared by competitor and spectator alike. There are the gold medals—actually gilded silver—the anthems, the Hags, the transcendent applause. It is so fleeting and so beautiful. But, of course, there is more. And though our memories of them may not admit it, Olympians carry no marks of identification once the victories are won, the medals given out. Nothing is predictable except that their lives are never again the same. As a group, only one thing can be said of them: their feet are made neither of gold nor of clay, but only of flesh.


He is a legend and newspapers have his obituary on composing-room trays, waiting to be pulled out when he dies. Most have had the type set for years. But perhaps they will not know when he dies, for Paavo Nurmi is a recluse. He is 75 years old and his heart, once perhaps as steady and as strong as any on earth, is feeble. He suffered a massive coronary failure four years ago, others more recently. He cannot get about without a cane.

In Helsinki, where he lives in an apartment overlooking Sibelius Park, Nurmi is considered to be a miser, a shrewd and sour fellow who made a lot of money in real estate and with the Paavo Nurmi shop, a men's clothing store. He won nine gold medals, more than any Olympic runner in history. He also won three silver medals. He entered 12 Olympic races in 1920, 1924 and 1928.

Nurmi was born on the nails of poverty in 1897 in Turku, the old capital of Finland. His father died when he was 12 and he became an errand boy, pushing a wheelbarrow. He began running in the black-pine forests near Turku and soon became so intense about it that people avoided him; where he had been taciturn to the point of glumness, now he did nothing but talk—about nothing but running. After elementary school he became a machine-shop worker, then went into the army where he was a weapons fitter. He never stopped running, but he became more and more withdrawn. He loved classical music and attended concerts frequently, but always alone. He was married for a year, then divorced. Neither he nor his wife remarried. He has one son, Matti, whom until recently he rarely saw.

Perhaps because of his early deprivations, Paavo Nurmi was known as a pothunter. It was once said, " Nurmi has the lowest heartbeat and the highest asking price of any athlete in the world." Nonetheless, he has always been a hero in Finland, a man whose fame put his country on the map of the world. A statue of him was sculpted in 1925. It now stands outside Helsinki Stadium, and recently an old friend, discussing the life of Nurmi, shook his head and said, "Think, for years Nurmi has had to look at his own statue. What would that do to a man?"

In 1952, when the Olympic Games were held in Helsinki, Paavo Nurmi astonished everyone by appearing suddenly at the opening ceremonies to run the final lap with the Olympic torch. He had trained hard for that role and his celebrated stride was unmistakable to the crowd. When he came into view, waves of sound began to build throughout the stadium, rising to a roar, then to a thunder. When the national teams, assembled in formation on the infield, saw the flowing figure of Nurmi, they broke ranks like excited schoolchildren, dashing toward the edge of the track.

A few years ago, after his first severe heart attack, Paavo Nurmi arranged to leave his estate (valued at about $240,000) to a foundation that supports heart research. When he announced the bequest, Nurmi agreed to hold a brief conversation with reporters. One asked, "When you ran Finland onto the map of the world, did you feel you were doing it to bring fame to a nation unknown by others?"

"No," said Nurmi. "I ran for myself, not for Finland."

"Not even in the Olympics?"

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