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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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Snow runs in blurry white trails across the road to Myrskyl�. Ravens rise and dip on the wind beneath the sky of silver gray, a sky without a trace of warmth or hope. Snow-fields spread to dark horizons of timber. Rust-red barns stand amid the trees, piles of golden-ended logs beside them. Smoke from farmhouses is whipped away and dispersed by the wind. People wearing wool or fur overcoats stand at bus stops along the road, slowly turning white on their windward sides. Once on the buses they shake out like collies. This is spring. This is Finland.

Throughout the Middle Ages, the Finns, who have inhabited this forested land for 2,000 years, were believed potent sorcerers, able to call up fierce storms. Joseph Conrad and Jack London carried that idea into this century, and much of the rest of Europe still shakes its head at these 4.7 million people who speak in mystifying incantations and rush steaming and naked from their saunas into hoarfrost and icy lakes, laughing.

Of contemporary sorcerers, one stands alone. Lasse Viren, now 27, in perfection of that other fine Finnish tradition of running long distances, won the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. In 1976, in Montreal, he won both races again, a defense never before accomplished. In Moscow in 1980 Lasse Viren will run yet again and may well win twice more. But the circumstances of Viren's career and character—his many poor races in non-Olympic competition, his carefully kept privacy, his mildly sarcastic way with curious reporters—have evoked a storm of accusations. It is said that his medals were won with the help of "blood doping," a misleading term for an experimental technique whereby some of an athlete's blood is withdrawn and the oxygen-carrying hemoglobin extracted and stored. When the athlete's system has regenerated the missing red blood cells in a few weeks, the hemoglobin is returned, giving the recipient a higher concentration than can occur naturally. Since distance running depends on oxygen-carrying capacity, the runner, theoretically, prospers.

Does Viren benefit from this procedure? What sort of man is he, this distant subject of rumor? To find out, one begins on the road to Myrskyl�—meaning a place of storms—a town of 2,300 located on a lake 65 miles northeast of Helsinki. You come through a thick pine wood, passing a dairy and a furniture factory, a bar, a couple of wooden churches and a bank. A mile beyond the town, beside Syvajarvi Lake, is a low brick building that at first seems to be a little elementary school or perhaps a fire station. It is Lasse Viren's house. On the door is a small printed message, in red, which translates to "Finish smoking or it will finish you."

The door is opened by Lasse Viren, dressed in T shirt and jeans, looking wan and sleepy on this cold midmorning. He accepts a gift of tulips and leads his visitors, once they have removed their shoes, into a sparkling kitchen. He puts the flowers into a scarlet glass vase that clashes with their pastel yellow and carries them into the living room, a large space filled with soft white leather couches. One wall is taken up with cabinets displaying cups and trays and lacquerware and beer steins and crystal goblets and wooden drinking vessels. Viren places the tulips on a table and sags into a lounge chair, his back to large, double-paned windows that give a view of ice-locked lake and wooded ridge. The house stands on land that the surrounding counties made available to Lasse for a very reasonable price after his medals of 1972. It was decorated by Finland's leading furniture and fabric designers. There is a bronze bust of Viren, executed by one of Finland's best sculptors, paid for by a group of business people. It is a fair likeness, and because the statue is informed with athletic energy—it is obviously Viren in competition, clear-eyed and brilliant—it looms in contrast to the boyish, swaybacked figure now slouching beside it.

Viren is just getting back into training after an operation to repair an ankle tendon injury suffered while hunting elk last fall. He wants to correct reports that it happened while carrying a moose back to camp, or that it happened in Lapland where the grateful nation had given him a hunting lodge, or that it didn't happen at all. The accident happened nearby, while he was jogging through the woods. For a medical description, he refers his visitors to his doctor in Helsinki. His voice is high and nasal because he has a little cold. He understands English but prefers, in this formal first meeting, to speak Finnish. The stresses in Finnish are placed at the beginnings of words, so his speech contains, at the end of every phrase, whispers. These seem almost a second language, a language between the lines, soft and faintly conspiratorial.

Perhaps this accentuates the enigma that is Viren. It was a misunderstanding, a language problem, he says, that inflamed the blood-doping aspersions at Montreal. In the interview after winning the 5,000 meters, he had been faced with argumentative questioners and had seemed to gloat in the furor, asking in seeming mock innocence if such a thing as blood-doping really was possible, never flatly denying his use of it. Now he says he thinks the translation was faulty. "I did deny it in Montreal," he says. "I meant to. I don't remember much of that interview. I was tired and the marathon was the next day. But no, I have never blood-doped. I have never experimented with it. They have never done that to me. Why are journalists always talking like that? No one does it." He asserts that if he had, he would say so, because the practice is not forbidden by Olympic rules.

Viren's wife of a year, P�ivi, comes home from shopping. She is a tall, strong woman of 20, at the time pregnant with a son who was born May 21. She takes away the bouquet of tulips, returning with them in a clear crystal vase. Lasse seems not to notice. He says that his honest way to winning Olympic races is intelligent planning of peak performance. He wins Olympic races because they are almost the only ones—the European championships excepted—that he cares about. For this, too, Viren has often been criticized.

"I don't care what they write," he says. "I know the expectations of people in this country. Every day they'd like a new world record. But I don't care. I'm running only for the Olympic Games." For Viren, the need to be consistently excellent amounts almost to a flaw in an athlete, an insecurity that must be constantly assuaged by winning. "There are runners and there are runners," he says calmly. "Some do well in other races, some run fast times, but they cannot do well in the ultimate, the Olympics." This is expressed almost with a trace of sadness.

"The value of the Olympics remains," he continues. He does not gesture so much as he fidgets. "If you win, you're lasting. And the Games include all the best runners; they are the true world championships. I'm not the only one who thinks this way. All runners want to run against the very best. The question is not why I run this way, but why so many others cannot. Seventeen men had faster times than I did going into the Montreal 5,000 meters. The question is why they could not do it again in the Olympic Games."

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