If I were to ask you to name famous Finns, you might struggle. However, there are few more accomplished performers or greater Paradigmeers than Finnish Olympian Paavo Nurmi.
Born in Turku, Finland in 1897, Nurmi was known as one of the famous “Flying Finns.” During the 1920s, he was recognized as the greatest middle and long distance runner in the world. He set forty world records for all distances between 1500m and 20km and competed in three Olympic games from 1920 to 1928, winning nine gold and three silver medals. Today, Paavo Nurmi is considered a Finnish national hero and an idol to many. Incredible achievements for sure, but this does not make him a Paradigmeer; it was the way he changed sport, forever, that puts him high on our list.
Any sportsperson today, whether a casual runner, footballer or gym user, will be familiar with sports science. The use of training programmes is universally recognised as an important way of improving athletic performance. In Nurmi’s day, athletes just raced. Turn up and run. There was no concept of training, no understanding that the body was able to adapt and improve. He was one of the first top athletes who had a systematic approach in training.
Walking, running and calisthenics were the main elements of his harsh training regimen. He learned to measure his pace and its effects with a stop watch. When Nurmi started using a stop watch in all his training runs, he broke the mould. How many of us today run, cycle, swim, train with a stop watch to time our efforts?
It obviously worked. On 22 June 1921 in Stockholm he set his first world record: 30.40,2 in 10,000 metres. He went on to break world records in most distances from 1500 metres to 10,000 metres, meticulously executing his carefully planned time schedules without much fear of competition. Putting his guiding principle into words, he said: “When you race against time, you don’t have to sprint. Others can’t hold the pace if it is steady and hard all through to the tape.”
He also applied what we now know as sports psychology, stating that: “Mind is everything. Muscle – pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.” Martti Jukola, a Finnish sports journalist, wrote in 1935: “…he conquered the world by pure means: with a will that had supernatural power.”
His significant achievements resulted from tireless hard work and a truly dedicated individual character. Through his achievements and his scientific approach to training and racing he transformed competitive running in the 1920s and opened people’s minds to the improvement of human potential through purposeful training.
“Success in sport as in almost anything comes from devotion. The athlete must make a devotion of his specialty.” Paavo Nurmi