There are some athletics stars it would be difficult to recognise even a year or two after their career has ended; such have they conceded to the good life after the discipline required to maintain top condition. Close to 30 years after his retirement from the track, Lasse Viren is not one of those people.
Despite the inevitable greying hair, and the glasses, and his claim that he weighs in at around five kilos heavier than the, “59 or 60 kilos” of his heyday, when I knock on his hotel door to set a time for this interview, he comes directly from the bathroom in just a pair of shorts, displaying a slender, tanned, honed torso, making him the slimmest, fittest 59 year old that I’m ever likely to see.
We meet in Belgrade, during marathon week in the Serbian capital. The organisers have a tradition of inviting a former superstar, to help promote the event in the local media. They could barely do better. The Finn is one of the all-time greats.
Six men and one woman have won the Olympic distance ‘double,’ of 5000 and 10,000 metres. Virén is the only one to do it twice in succession, in 1972 and 1976 – the double ‘double’. Furthermore, that was back in the days when there were heats for the 10,000 metres, instead of the straight final we see nowadays. And in his first Olympic final, the 10,000 metres in Munich ’72, the unrated Virén fell in the early laps, and lost a good 50 metres on the leaders.
He didn’t panic. He got up, set off at a steady pace, pulled back to the pack, took the lead, and won going away. In a world record, no less! In Montreal ’76, he thinks that if he’d had a couple of days’ rest after his epic 5000 metres victory, he might have won the marathon as well. “I ran the 5000 final, my fourth race in a week, went to dope-testing, then went to dinner. By then it was very late, I didn’t get much sleep. I went straight to the start of the marathon. I felt OK until 37k, and then I had no more energy”.
He finished fifth in his first marathon, and Emil Zatopek’s record of winning all three, 5000 and 10,000 metres, and the marathon (on his debut), in Helsinki 1952, was safe.
Virén is a reserved but amiable character, and you get the impression a smile is rarely far from his lips. That broadens when he tells how his coach instructed him to follow defending champion, Frank Shorter of the US in the marathon in Montreal. “After a while, Frank realised my tactics,” says Virén, “because every time he looked round, I was right behind him. But when we got to one of the drinks stations, there were so many people, I couldn’t see him. Frank put up his hand, and called, ‘Lasse, here I am’”.
Shorter’s confidence was punctured by Waldemar Cierpinski of East Germany, who won the first of his two Olympic marathon titles.
Virén qualified for the Moscow Olympic 10,000 metres in 1980, but says by then his motivation had waned. Even so, he was competitive until 300 metres from the finish when Miruts Yifter took off to win the first leg of his own Olympic double. Virén finished fifth, but he had helped his young compatriot, Kaarlo Maaninka to stay in contention long enough to win silver. Virén ran the marathon again, but dropped out at 35k with stomach problems.
He announced his retirement after Moscow, but admits he accepted invitations to several road races in the ensuing two or three years. Maaninka later found God, and admitted to having blood doped his way to two Olympic medals (bronze on the 5000 metres in Moscow as well). It was not against the rules at the time, and suspicion has always lingered about Virén. His demeanour doesn’t alter a jot when I put the question to him. “I’ve always said I did nothing wrong. I know what I did, the hard work I did, “.
There was also the curious story several years ago of him wanting to sell his medals, but he says that was a joke. “A Finnish newspaper did a story of how much an Olympic gold medal cost, with the years of training, equipment, food, coaching, physiotherapy, etc. They came up with a figure of five million (Finn)marks, I suppose about a million euros now. So, I asked if they would pay me 20 millions (marks) for my medals. But it was a joke”.
Despite the trim figure, Virén, who will be 60 in July says he barely runs nowadays. That is partly the legacy of a car accident over 20 years ago. “I have a bone in my foot which hurts when I run. I should have an operation really, but it doesn’t hurt when I walk, so I won’t bother. I walk my dog on a circuit of two or three kilometres every morning, and about once or twice a month, I’ll jog it”.
The man who shares his fame in Finnish (and international) running lore with a veritable legion of legends, from Hannes Kohlemainen and Paavo Nurmi through to his contemporaries, Juha Vaatainen and Pekka Vasala, remains as sanguine as virtually everyone else in the so-called First World about the lack of current champions. “When I was running well, there was always three Finns, three English, three Italians, and others from western Europe and USA. Now the youngsters have so many other things to do at home: computers, mobile phones, games, team sports. It is the time of the Africans, but maybe when they get richer, in 30 years or so, they will also get fat and lazy”.
There is a long tradition of leading sportsmen and women going into politics in Finland, the best example probably being the former high jumper (1.85m in 1924), and long-time president (36 years), Urho Kekkonen. A former policeman throughout his early career, Virén was approached by the Conservative Party ten years ago, to stand for Parliament, and duly won two terms of four years each. Since 2007, he has contented himself with being speaker in the local parliament/council for Myrskylá, the township of 2000 people, an hour’s drive from Helsinki, where he has spent most of his life.
He seems a man eminently content with his life, something that comes out with each equable response to a succession of requests for photographs and autographs both at the marathon in Belgrade, and at the reception afterwards. Although he eats and drinks abstemiously at dinner later, testament to that slender figure, he doesn’t refuse when our host suggests a nightcap, although he is due to get up five hours later to get an early plane home. As we down a rakija or two, the local firewater, I ask him about Steve Prefontaine, the US champion relegated to fourth in the Munich 5000 metres, but whom many in the US thought would challenge in Montreal, had he not been killed in a car crash the year before.
One of the several filmed accounts of Prefontaine’s life has Virén present in Eugene on the night that the US track star crashed his car. “I was supposed to be in Eugene that weekend,” says Virén, “but I was injured, so didn’t go. I often wonder what would have happened if I was there. Would I have been in the car with him?”
The rest goes unsaid. The following year, Virén put in one of the greatest final kilometres in any distance race in Olympic history. He kicked from the front in the 5000 metres, and stayed ahead of such renowned ‘finishers’ as Dick Quax, Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand, Rod Dixon, and Brendan Foster, all of them former 1500 metres men. It was the second leg of his double ‘double’. Thus the name of Lasse Virén was engraved even more indelibly in the minds of those who witnessed it; and on the collective memory that is Olympic history itself.