SI Vault
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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The sun sets and the air grows colder. A wind comes up. Viren puts his gloves back on. In the last few miles the surface water begins to glaze; mushy snow becomes ice, crackling underfoot. Returning to his house, he stretches in the driveway and P�ivi comes out to tell him that the electricity is off again. Viren, who has promised his guest a Finnish sauna, and whose sauna heater is electric, is prepared for this. He leads the way across the road to the home of a neighbor who has a wood-burning sauna. His black and white cat named Tappila (Spot) leaps ahead. "The cat loves to go to sauna," he says.

"The cat does?"

"Yes. She insists. It's hard to get her out."

"She doesn't take a shower afterward, surely?"

"No, but she licks herself for an hour."

The sauna is in a shed on a hillside. Tappila circles and declines to enter. Viren shrugs, strips off his moist running clothes in an anteroom and goes in. He climbs to the top of a tier of benches and sits on a checkered linen cloth, his head near the ceiling, where pitch has extruded from the wood in large amber globules. The temperature is 185� F.

For the visitor the sauna is like a run. In the beginning it is pleasant to sit and sweat and talk, but as the heat begins really to penetrate, as Viren tosses a cupful of water on the shimmering red stones and steam fills the room it is like a race. There is the same unease. Thought becomes random, hard to control. The time before relief is permissible seems to stretch out of view. A small window, curtained, with four tiny panes, gives a little light. The dim scene out the window is of icicles on nearby branches, the cat crouched on a snowbank. It cannot be that cold so near. It becomes irresistible to think of how it will be to emerge, faint and heavy, and sink into cool water, the heat draining away, passing out like a vaporous spirit. Then the routine will be repeated, cultivating the demon and expunging him with simple snow or a dive into the pond. When one comes finally from the recovery room, the Finnish night is found to be a balmy evening, the snow about your ankles no more than goosedown. And so the winter passes. Surely the sauna is a nurturer of hope through these long, cold silences.

Lasse Viren isn't a staunch sauna man. He does this only about once a week, and now leaves first, washes and goes to thank his neighbor for the favor. Soon he is back in his own candlelit kitchen, sipping black coffee and chewing on sweet, pretzelly bread. He is asked questions that have come to seem important to the visitor. What made him decide to sacrifice everything for running? Was there a real moment of decision? Is there a psychological aspect to peaking? These do not seem unusually vague or analytical, but Viren shrinks from them, squirming. "I just wanted to run," he says. "I had no goal. It is perfectly normal to run at midnight when you are 18 without having a goal. Then I trained for the European Games and then the Olympics. But when did I decide this and that? Why? I can't remember." He speaks in a whisper. "I can't remember."

His discomfort is so clearly evident that it makes his guest ashamed. Running is not verbal for Lasse Viren, not something to be dwelt upon and picked apart. Viren's rationale lies back there on the crusty roads, back among the pines and granite boulders, or out on the Tartan of Olympic stadia with astonished praise raining about him.

Seeing this, one feels a protective urge. Such a man cannot by himself make himself understood. He will either be maligned by all those who see his silences and awkward deflecting jokes as rude screens for secrets or he will be thought dumb. He is neither rude nor dumb. And yet it suddenly seems by far the wisest life that he stay near his roots, that he live, shielded, in Myrskyl�.

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