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AN ENIGMA WRAPPED IN GLORY
Kenny Moore
June 27, 1977
Despite Lasse Viren's unprecedented wins in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at successive Olympics, the Finnish runner has remained a puzzling, controversial athlete
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June 27, 1977

An Enigma Wrapped In Glory

Despite Lasse Viren's unprecedented wins in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at successive Olympics, the Finnish runner has remained a puzzling, controversial athlete

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Viren's mystification over the weakness of the world's runners has softly turned to pride. He grins, remembering, looking smug. P�ivi, opening a box of chocolates for the guests, smiles at him fondly, as at a goofy child. "The plan was to run a fast last kilometer, to keep the good milers like New Zealand's Rod Dixon and Dick Quax from being able to sprint at the end." He says no more, because obviously it worked perfectly, leading to an incredible stretch run that saw Viren, his stride unchanging, drawing away from the open-mouthed, staggering Kiwis.

Now he hooks his arms over the back of his chair, stretching out that spare (134 pounds), lanky (5'11") frame. His head lolls back to gaze idly at his home's beautiful sandblasted pine ceiling, at his statue with its Caesar's tousled hair and eyes that seem to see more than those they simulate. He planned his finest hour, and had it happen. Twice. And he planned again and had it happen again. Twice more. He's right. They can't take that away from him. But to speak of peaks is to imply valleys, times of mortality. To have one's finest hour, and to know it, means the rest of one's life is decline, an observed falling away. Can a man who has achieved such excellence be content simply with memory, even one grandly cast in bronze?

Viren was born in Myrskyl�. His son is the fourth generation of his family born there. He attended elementary school for eight years, worked with his father driving and repairing trucks, and spent eight months in the army before becoming a country policeman. He began running as a teenager "because as you can see"—he hunches around and looks out over the white reaches of the lake—"there is nothing to do in Myrskyl�." Nevertheless, that is where he wishes to spend the rest of his life.

Over a lunch of black coffee and lihapiirakka, a pastry containing chopped meat, egg and rice, Viren says, "In summer this is a wonderful place. The lake is there for swimming. There is a sauna...." He trails off, and is asked if the prospect of being a celebrity in a more urban setting ever tempts him. "The ideal situation in life." he says, uncomfortable in the need to speak abstractly, "is when you are free to do what you want. If I am on my way somewhere and I meet a friend. I want to be able to stop and talk, to have a coffee. You can do that here. In the city it is all schedules."

He speaks of his work as a policeman not as a calling but as a good job for a runner, permitting much time off for travel and training. "The work is varied. We cover four counties and have to do paper work and detective work and take care of traffic accidents." He has never caught a really big criminal, but then there has never been a murder in Myrskyl�. He thinks there may once have been a suicide.

Viren is not politically active, saying he has no time for that, but enjoys tinkering with his orange Peugeot 504 with fake leopard-skin seat covers. In the early years of his success he was famously shy, and marathoner Pekka Tiihonen, his roommate in Munich, once told a story of Viren running down an apple thief in an orchard. Having tackled the man, he was so embarrassed that another policeman had to come up and formally say, "You're under arrest."

Viren smiles in seeming recognition as this is repeated for his corroboration, then says, "I can't remember that."

The city offices of Myrskyl� display a pair of shoes—one from Montreal, one from Munich—given by Viren in thanks for the community's support. "I certainly can't complain," he says. But when asked if he considers himself lucky, he takes on the expression of a man sensing he is about to be tricked. "Of course you need good luck, but you also must work hard. I'm no more lucky than any other runner. The main thing is to do hard work and never lose hope." He switches the talk back to Myrskyl�, to the virtues of knowing all his neighbors, of taking strength from natural, peaceful surroundings.

"But you are spending that strength in running," says a visitor. "What will happen when that is over? Will you still be happy here?"

"It's impossible to tell, isn't it?" Viren replies.

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