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Close to the Swedish border in Finnish Lapland, 15 miles above the Arctic Circle, a tiny form darts, elflike, through forests of pine and fir. Moving forward on a pair of slender skis, stabbing the snow carpet with two sticks, slithering downhill, pumping uphill, the figure disappears in the gray clouds that sit like mournful ghosts atop the highest slopes. In the valleys below, reindeer tiptoe around isolated villages and warmly bundled children bicycle on frozen rivers.
This is a remote land, of quiet, almost eerie beauty, a setting for an old-fashioned fairy tale. But for the farmers and woodcutters and reindeer herders who live here, it is also a land of bitter pervading cold, where the infirm or inebriated who try to travel after dark are sometimes discovered stiff as icicles when the long, long arctic night has passed. To a dark, wiry Finn named Eero Mantyranta, who is indeed the elusive figure gliding through the forests on his slender cross-country skis, it is a way of life as natural as the rolling Pacific to a Polynesian or the dry desert heat to an Arab. Mantyranta has lived in this unique world for the full 26 years of his life. He put on his first pair of skis when he was 3 years old. He fell through the ice at 10 and was fished out stiff as a frozen carp and revived. He won his first silver cup for skiing at 11 and has been busy ever since winning enough cups and other baubles to stock a fair-sized gift shop. He is now the foremost Finn in that lonely, exhausting sport known as cross-country skiing, at which his nation has long excelled. If skiing glory should come to Finland in these next two weeks, Mantyranta is the racer most likely to bring it.
He is a man with a singular capacity for solitude and self-discipline. He needs it, for the loneliness of the long-distance skier is particularly intense. Most sports surround an athlete with teammates, opponents and crowds. But in cross-country, the individual competitor is sent off in an interval between opponents to race against times that others record while he is out on the course—or after he finishes. His field of combat is an undulating snow track snaking through trees, sharp turns, sudden ascents and descents. Except for rare encounters with overtaken opponents, the racer is alone with his agony and his ambition. A 15-kilometer run (9.3 miles) will take him a bit over 45 minutes, the 30-kilometer about an hour and 40 minutes and the 50-kilometer just under three hours.
The real loneliness, however, comes in training. Men like Mantyranta condemn themselves to a kind of solitary confinement in the great, gusty outdoors, going out day after day to slip through the forests for long hours without meeting another soul. This confinement calls for special human qualities, and Eero Mantyranta is a special kind of man. In appearance, he is quite unlike the great blond gods the Scandinavian countries seem to produce for their athletic teams. Mantyranta's hair is black and brushed straight back. Black eyebrows make long arcs over his brown eyes. His face has, in fact, a touch of the Mediterranean, complementing a personality that is pleasing, modest and good-natured. No dour Finn, he laughs easily, and, in the words of a countryman, "seems to have a bit of the Italian about him." He weighs only 143 pounds and stands 5 feet 7 inches. He would like to have another inch or two just to lengthen his skiing stride; otherwise his whippetlike body is eminently suited to the task of streaking over the track on the lightest possible skis. Most important, however, he possesses an ability to concentrate and endure, a mental toughness that the Finns are fond of calling sisu. This word is, in a harsh gray land, a national slogan. It means, roughly, guts.
Mantyranta was born in November, 1937 near the village of Pello in northwestern Finland, just above the Gulf of Bothnia. He lived on a small farm three kilometers distant from his school and on the other side of a lake. He would walk and row to school in warm weather and—like all other rural Finns—go by skis and ice skates in winter. As a teen-ager he experienced a loneliness that was severe even by the harsh standards of this empty land. "My two older brothers would go out in the woods and work together," he says. "I would go out alone, cutting down and trimming trees."
It was during these difficult early years that Mantyranta began to thirst for the glory of ski competition. In Finland, he explains, "Your boyhood heroes are sportsmen, especially skiers. They do almost entirely cross-country, because Finland has very few hills or lifts. You start training because you think it must be wonderful to be just like them. You don't realize how hard it is."
Mantyranta had both the tenacity and stamina to stick to training. Today his record is both long and distinguished for a man of only 26, for by the calendar of maturity of the cross-country racer, he should be just now entering his prime. He began on a national scale in 1955 by placing 10th in the Finnish championship's 10-kilometer race for boys 17 and 18 years old. By 1959, he was a member of the winning Finnish relay team at the Boden, Sweden games. And in the 1960 Winter Olympics he earned a gold medal for helping take the 4 x 10-kilometer relay for Finland.
After that, Mantyranta had a stunning succession of individual triumphs in the 15-kilometer and 30-kilometer triumphs at Le Brassus, Switzerland, the Finnish championships, the Ounasvaara games, the Boden games, Norway's Holmenkollen games, the 1962 world championships at Zakopane, Poland and the 1963 games at Umea, Sweden.
This sort of sampling of the record gives only the barest hint of the staggering number—some 300—and variety of competitions that Mantyranta has entered in his career. It is a quantity of skiing all the more notable because of the nature of his occupation. He is now a Finnish customs guard who spends much of his working time on skis. He dresses in white for camouflage, straps on a pistol and goes out by day and in the long, cold Lapland night to stop illegal crossings of the Finnish-Swedish border.
Mantyranta is content with his customs job because it enables him to live in his hometown and spend his mornings in training. He gets some time off with pay to enter most important competitions, but the days off for less important races are squeezed out of his vacation time. At present, he is deeply annoyed that his government will not pay him during the two-month leave he has just taken to get himself in fighting trim for the Olympics. Many Finns deplore this, too, but they assure any foreigner that "ours is a poor country" and has little money for its athletes.