Lasse Viren was born in Helsinki, Finland July 22nd 1949. He would grow up and thrive in the town of Myrskylä, Finland (literally translated, Stormville). He was a policeman, and is now a politician. However, his main claim to fame remains the four Olympic gold medals that earned at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics in Munich and Montreal, respectively.
Lasse grew up in Finland as a typical child, and did not run competitively in secondary school. He was a member of the local running club, Myrskylän Myrsky (the Stormville Stormers) from his teens. However, he ran primarily for fitness. It wasn't until he was a policeman in Myrskylä that he began to train seriously.
And train seriously he did. From the very beginning, he had one goal in mind: The Olympics. Finland was famous for its distance runners in the past, with greats like Paavo Nurmi. But in the years from 1948 to 1968 there had only been two medals in track and field for Finland, both bronze. So Viren trained relentlessly. He ran primarily on the wooded trails of the forested countryside, avoiding tracks for the most part. He felt that running on uneven footing required mental toughness, as well as keeping his leg muscles ready for anything.
"The tranquillity of nature creates mental strength. When you run in the woods, you will have to change rhythm to avoid roots, just in the same way as you have to be constantly alert in a competition"
Viren trained in relative obscurity, unlike his American counterpart Steve Prefontaine, who during the same time was gracing magazine covers as America's next great runner, having set American records in a number of events, most notably the 5,000 meters. Viren also tended to run a different style of race from Prefontaine: Pre was a stocky workhorse, he ran hard and steady from beginning to end, pounding his competitors to the ground. Lasse, on the other hand, was a kicker. He could still run at a blazing pace, but he depended on having a smooth, strong kick in the last 800 meters.
Viren would first gain world-wide attention when he broke his first world record in the two-mile race on Aug. 14, 1972, roughly a month before the Olympic games in Munich. His time was 8:14.0s. Clearly, his years of training were allowing his fitness to peak at just the right time.
At the Olympics in September of that year, Viren would continue to shine, and he would do so in two of the most memorable races of the past century: the 10,000 meter final on September 3rd, and the 5,000 meter final on the 10th.
The 10,000 meter final at Munich was led out by Dave Bedford of Great Britain in world-record pace. Then, shockingly, in the 12th lap, Viren tangled with another runner and fell, causing Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia, the current 5,000 meter Olympic champion, to fall as well. Gammoudi dropped out of the race, but Viren quickly got to his feet and strained to catch the leaders again.
"Yes I fell over but I did not have time to think that the dream was over. I just got up as fast as I could and tried to catch up.
"However I do remember that because it all happened so quickly I was disorientated and thought I was running in the wrong direction after I got up."
Fortunately, Viren was running the right direction. He caught the leaders within 200 meters and was one of the remaining five in the final laps. With 600m to go, he launched a devastating kick, and finished in his second world-record time: 27:38.4s.
"The first medal was the most special. Winning is the goal for any athlete when he attends the Olympics and winning that first medal was so special. Everybody wants to win the Olympics and I was no different."
Tragically, the Munich games were also host to one of the worst tragedies of the celebration of sport, when 9 Israeli athletes were held hostage and and eventually killed by Palestinian extremists. These events delayed the games for a week. While the tragedy of such an event cannot be understated, it affected the games themselves. Every athlete got a week's rest, even if it was pained with anxiety over the welfare of one's competitors.
In the 5,000 meter final on September 10th, Viren faced Prefontaine, the confident American, for the first time. However, the race quickly played to Viren's favor: nobody was taking the lead. The pace dragged for the first 8 laps. Prefontaine, upset by the poor pacing and fearing a disastrous finish amongst a pack of kickers, led a sustained surge for the final four laps. Viren and Gammoudi, trying to defend his title in the 5,000, stayed with him though, and Viren managed to outkick Gammoudi for the gold with a time of 13:26.4s. He had won both the 5k and 10k races at the Olympics in the same year, and was the toast of Finland. He would later set the world record in the 5,000 meters as well at 13:16.4s
Back in Finland, the townsfolk of Myrskylä were so proud of him that they built him a sauna next to his home, on a lake. Also, a local race was started, the Lassen Hölkkä (Lasse's Run). It has both a 10k and 20k, and runs through the same woods and same paths the Viren trained on. It is still held to this day, and is one of the most famous races in Finland. Lasse has won it three times, but he has run in nearly all of them.
In between the Olympic years, Viren trained more, but continued to avoid racing as voraciously as his peers. He trained with a relentless consistency, but lived with little regard for his talent. He had no special diet. He continued to work as a policeman.
"Times were different then. It was not a full time profession and you were not running for money."
At the Olympics in 1976, in Montreal, Canada, Viren's Olympic peaking strategy worked famously once again. In the 10,000 meters, Carlos Lopes led for most of the race. Viren passed him 450 metres from the finish and won by 30 metres, exactly as he planned.
The 5,000 meters was a more difficult race however, though he still regards it today as his greatest victory. The pace was dragging for the first 3,000 meters, so Viren took the lead and went hard for the last 2,000. In the final lap, Viren was in the lead, but only five metres separated the first six runners. Coming out of the final turn, Virén held of Dick Quax of New Zealand and won his fourth gold medal. Viren was the only repeat winner of the Olympic 5,000 meters, and remains to this day. He ran the Olympic marathon later in the week, attempting to repeat the famous triple-crown achieved by Emil Zatopek in 1952. In his first attempt at the distance, he finished fifth, still the closest anyone has come since Zatopek.
Viren would return to the Olympics in 1980, and run the 10,000 meters again, to place fifth. He scratched from the marathon in that same year due to an intestinal ailment.
Today, Viren still runs for fitness, and lives in Helsinki with his wife. He has moved into politics and since 1999 he has been an MP in Finland's ruling Conservative Party. He remains a national icon, and an international hero in the sport of track and field.
Prefontaine - the movie