The father of
Finland's running tradition, Nurmi won Olympic gold medals in the 1920, 1924
and 1928 Olympics and later became a wealthy businessman, yet always remained
reclusive and parsimonious. Toward the end he was bitter. "When Nurmi had
his 75th birthday, our president, Urho Kekkonen, wanted to pay a call and help
celebrate," says Haikkola. "Nurmi refused."
Viren has said,
"Nurmi offers nothing to the runner of today," but Haikkola represents
a connection between the two greatest Finnish Olympians. As a young coach he
often sought Nurmi's counsel. "He gave advice, but he would never come talk
with my young athletes. 'They don't know me,' he would say. His chief lesson
was always this: if you want to tell something to an athlete, say it quickly
and give no alternatives. This is a game of winning and losing. It is senseless
to explain and explain.' "
something of that in Viren. "Normally he doesn't like to talk about sport
or training. He's doing it so much he doesn't need to dwell on it. He's wary
and reserved until he gets to know you. You should run with him, take a sauna
with him. He'll loosen up. But you will always have a sense of something hidden
in Lasse's mind, something you can never see. He is sensitive. He will be an
indulgent father. But he is also hard. When he tries something, he tries to the
ultimate. When he fell in Munich, his only reaction was to get up. No second
thoughts, no fear. Mohammed Gammoudi, who went down with him, stayed there too
long. He lost hope. Lasse Viren doesn't lose hope."
student of long winter preparations and shining summer peaks, influenced Viren
to frame his entire career on his conclusions. "In 1972 he won the first
gold for Finland in a running event in 36 years. The receptions and obligations
and business opportunities were so great, he only slept three hours a night for
months. [As a result, Viren now has a little sports-shoe distributorship that
is run by a brother, Erkki, and a modest trucking venture, run by another
brother, Nisse. His youngest brother, Heikki, drives a bus.] We talked. He had
to make a decision. He could go for the world records that year or the next,
but he was burning the candle at both ends. By Montreal he would be shot. I
said choose, records or more Olympic medals. He said medals. That made the
in-between years easier. Races became part of his training." Viren's injury
has made his schedule indefinite this post-Olympic year, although he will run a
10,000-meter road race in Atlanta on the Fourth of July.
Viren have already charted a plan for 1980. The astonishing thing is that it
was made before Montreal. "It was important to decide before. We knew it
would be easy to say ' Moscow' if he won in Montreal. But what if he didn't? It
is better to make a vow in the wilderness."
There is a strike
at the electric facility in Myrskyl�, but it has a certain civility— the power
goes off and comes back on every two hours. Just now it is off, so Lasse
Viren's mother sits in the warmest place in her home, the dining room. Watery
sunshine streams through lace curtains onto antique oak sideboards and heavy
cut crystal. Elvi Viren is a prim, pale woman with iron-gray hair, glasses and
a great many large teeth that impart to her face an arresting vigor.
Lasse was always
a peaceful boy,' she says in a tone of reverie. "He was terribly shy. It
was like milking a cow to get him to say anything. But everything he wanted to
do, he wanted to do perfectly." She smiles. "Besides working the farm
here, Lasse's father drove trucks. [Johann Illmarie Viren, a hard smoker, died
of lung cancer in September 1975 at age 60; thus the force of the placard on
Lasse's front door.] After Lasse was three he always wanted to travel with him.
He would insist that I wake him so he wouldn't miss an early-morning departure.
He was quite firm about it. And when he began running races at school, it was
the same. There were times when he was working for his father and they would be
out unloading trucks until 11 o'clock or midnight, but still Lasse would go
run. We said to him, 'It couldn't possibly do any good to run this late.' He
would say only, 'I must.'
when he was 18. He quit mechanical trade school to train more. He left
everything else because of running. Yes, we worried. If he wasn't any good he
would have given up a lot. But then we thought, well, he must be good if he is
training so much, and besides he was a wonderful son. The neighbors always said
if something happens to you, we'll take care of the kids: and then they'd all
bid for Lasse."
Then came Munich.
There were premonitions. "Lasse's father saw him in a dream the night
before the 10,000 meters. Lasse came to him and said, I am going to win.'
Before the 5,000 his father spoke in his sleep. He said, 'Where can we find a
plate big enough for both of the gold medals?' " Elvi Viren says she
herself gets a feeling whenever Lasse is winning. "It's like a rush of
blood to your head," she says. "Like blushing."
have been necessary because although she and the neighbors figure to hire a bus
and see Moscow in 1980, she attended neither the Munich nor Montreal Olympics.
Thus she was at home on the most glorious day in Myrskyl�'s history, the day of
the 10,000 gold in 1972. "At first I thought this can't be true," she
says with a laugh. "A hundred roses came in one box! And then hundreds of
boxes!" Two roses remain in the dining room, gilded. "People cried and
the reporters came and tramped through the house, and every Christmas, even
now, people see the reruns on television and they call and send