Paavo Nurmi: The First Athlete to Won 5 Gold Medals In a Single Olympics

Paavo Nurmi Marathon

He set 22 official world records at distances between 1500 meters and 20 kilometers and won nine gold and three silver medals in his twelve events in the Summer Olympic Games. At his peak, He was undefeated for 121 races at distances from 800m to 20,000m.

The Legend

Paavo Nurmi is a name that may not be familiar to many, but the running world and world of Olympians know who he was. He was known as The Flying Finn, and he made running into the phenomenon it has become today. After winning three gold medals in the 1920 Olympics, Paavo became an international star. His competitors came from all over the world to race him and try to keep up with his speed, strength, and endurance in long-distance running events. He was one of the greatest athletes of all time. He was an Olympic champion from 1920 – 1928 and won nine gold medals over his lifetime at different distances. But what’s most impressive is that he won more than 70 consecutive races and set 22 world records between 1923 and 1931, which are still unmatched today.

Paavo Nurmi Games

Golden Olympian

The record books show Nurmi won five gold medals that summer. What they don't make clear is that he did it within six days. It's worth adding that he was a distance runner. He won his medals in the most demanding races on the schedule, bunched up because nobody would be brave enough to try it all. No athlete has ever taken on what Nurmi took on. No athlete even came close. Distance running in the 1920s was dominated by one country - Finland. But even among the all-conquering Finns, Nurmi to the status of Olympic titan. He was a single-minded pioneer of distance running who achieved things people thought impossible.

His Childhood

Nurmi was born in Finland in 1897 – When Finland was part of Russia. He was interested in running from an early age, but he also loved to play ice hockey and football. When he decided to drop those sports, his parents were not thrilled. However, they did support his choice once they saw how serious Nurmi was about running and how dedicated he could be.

At the age of eleven, he ran 1500 meters at 5.02 seconds. In 1910 his father died, and a year later his sister also died. The situation was difficult for everyone. Although he was good at his studies, his family members sudden demise ended his school career. His financial status was poor then so they lent their kitchen for rent and lived in a single room. After that, he stopped training and joined a bakery shop. By lifting heavy bakery goods, his back and leg muscles simultaneously strengthened.

Where It's All Started

At 22, While in the army, he ran 20km carrying a rifle, a cartridge belt, and an 11lb sack of sand. It was supposed to be a march, but he ran the whole course. Nurmi’s achievements are unlike anything seen either before or since. In his prime year, he was weighing 65 kg and 174 cm tall. He was the first person to train systematically in athletic training. He used to wear a stopwatch to know the pace of every race. His training pattern was very hard. Every athlete and spectator was astounded by seeing his typical training pattern. The focus on split times and running strategies was unique. He was years ahead of his time.

First World Record

Nurmi consistently shocked the running world with his remarkable turnarounds and relentless training schedule. Opponents considered him extraordinary, Some say even crazy; But Nurmi’s career was bright enough to outlast many others. On September 16, 1910, Nurmi placed first in a field of twenty-two competitors at Finland’s Olympic Trials. He ran ten kilometers in thirty-three minutes and fifty-nine seconds, setting a new world record by nine seconds. To put that into perspective, he was over half a mile ahead of his second-place competitor.

Paavo Nurmi Gold Medals

Becoming an Olympic Legend

Nurmi started to flourish during his military service, setting national records en route to his international debut at the 1920 Summer Olympics. But what Nurmi did during Antwerp (also known as the Olympic Games of 1920) truly set him apart from other runners – and gave rise to one of history’s greatest running careers. In front of 50,000 spectators, he used every ounce of strength he had to win a silver medal in the 5000 m, he also took gold in the 10,000 m and the cross country events. His time for each event was near the world-record levels, but it wasn’t his time that would make him an icon among athletes. In 1923, Nurmi became the first runner to hold simultaneous world records in the mile, the 5000 m, and the 10,000 m races, a feat which has never since been repeated.

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In Paris in 1924, Finnish officials stopped him from entering the 10,000 meters, but he entered the 1,500 meters, the 5,000 meters, the 3,000 meters team race, and the cross-country. He was frustrated that Finnish officials had refused to enter him for the 10,000 m. He comfortably beat the pace set inside the stadium. He ran heats on Tuesday and Wednesday, but Thursday was Nurmi’s biggest day. He was due to run the 1,500 meters and the 5,000 meters, despite a break of only two hours between them. There was no time to rest. Nurmi was so quick in the 1,500-metre final that he slowed up at the end, He walked straight off the track at the end, picked up his belongings, and prepared for the next race. Others passed out from exhaustion, but Nurmi had another race to run. Finally, he set new world records in 1500 m and 5000 m with just an hour between the races.

Paavo Nurmi 9 gold medals

Impossible Running

Today, athletes get a day to recover between races, but not Nurmi. At the 1924 Paris Games, He made history by becoming the first athlete ever to win five gold medals at a single Olympic Games. In the space of six astonishing days, Nurmi won the 1500m, the 5,000m, the 3,000m team event, and the two cross-country events.


After-Athletics Career

In 1948, after his Olympic career, Paavo and his wife moved to Finland. He was asked to serve as a member of Parliament in Finland's government and served until 1951. He also served as Chairman of Helsinki's 1952 Olympic Committee. During these years he played a crucial role in getting Helsinki ready for the 1952 Olympics. In 1956, after retiring from politics, he went back to school at Harvard University. where he got his master's degree and then became an associate professor of sports sciences at Turku University in 1960 where he taught until 1966 when he resigned to become the President of Finlands Sports Federation for two years before retiring for good.

The French magazine Miroir des Sports wrote, “Paavo Nurmi goes beyond the limits of humans.” Nurmi won nine gold medals in his career, five of them over those six days in Paris. It is a track record that would never be matched.

Paavo Nurmi Olympic Games

For ten years he suffered from a stroke and multiple complications of atherosclerosis, he was 76 when he died in 1973. Though his world records were broken, no one will forget the legend Nurmi in athletic history. Nurmi’s last record fell in 1996; his 1925 world record for the indoor 2000 m lasted as the Finnish national record for 71 years.

Paavo Nurmi Records

In his 14-year career, Nurmi never lost in the 10,000m or cross country events. He is, without a doubt, the most successful distance runner of the 20th century. From being a hard-working employee, Paavo Nurmi has gone on to become one of the most admired sportsmen in history.

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