RUNNER, POLICE OFFICER, POLITICIAN
Lasse Viren was a middle distance runner from Finland who won gold medals in the 5,000 m and 10,000 m races at both the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany, and the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, Canada.
Viren epitomized the concept of training with a specific goal and a specific competition in mind. In sport jargon, this is known as "peaking," and means that an athlete trains with the intent of reaching maximum fitness at the time of a certain competition.
In Viren's case, the competitions were the Olympics. In the years preceding the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, his running accomplishments were relatively minor. Instead, he dedicated himself to training, seldom participating in non-Olympic competitions.
Viren began to run as a hobby in his youth. His training continued after he became a police officer in Helsinki. By 1971, his running had progressed to the point where he was of international caliber.
Prior to the 1972 Munich games, Viren was a talented runner but seemingly not world-class. For example, in the 1971 European Championships, he placed seventh in the 5,000-m final and seventeenth in the 10,000-m final. However, reflecting his training philosophy, just a month prior to the start of the Olympics he established a new world record for two miles in a time of 8 minutes, 14 seconds (an average of 4 minutes, 7 seconds per mile).
His performance inspired the then 23-year-old to compete in both the 5,000-m and 10,000-m events at the 1972 games. Originally, he had intended to enter only the shorter distance.
In the 10,000 m final at the 1972 games, Viren became entangled with another competitor and fell down. Even with this mishap, he managed to win the race, finishing 6 m ahead of the next competitor. In the process, he set a new world record of 27 minutes 38.4 seconds. In the 5,000-m final, held one week later, Viren outsprinted the other runners, including the late American runner Steve Prefontaine.
Fours days later, Viren set a new world record for the 5,000 m in a time of 13 minutes 16.4 seconds.
Then, true to form, he relaxed his training regimen. At his next competition, held later that year, Viren finished nearly 20 seconds behind the winner.
By 1974, with the next Olympics only two years away, Viren's times had improved, as he began to ratchet up his training schedule.
Viren's training regimen was done alone and consisted of thousands of kilometers of runs through the woods around Helsinki. He maintained that running through the undergrowth of the forest floor sharpened his mental focus and created opportunities to alter the pace of his run.
A factor in Viren's training was his continuing obligation as a fulltime police officer. In contrast to the situation for elite athletes in 2006, athletes received little if any compensation for training and no prize money. In the spirit of the times, Olympic competition was reserved for amateur athletes; rules then in place by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) discouraged participation by those who benefited financially from their sport. Viren experienced the IOC's wrath when, after his 10,000 m victory in the 1976 games, he removed his shoes and carried them during a post-race lap of the track. IOC members felt that this action was done to display the shoes' logo. According to Viren, he had removed his shoes to relieve the pain of a blister.
In the 1976 Montreal games, Viren easily won the 10,000-m competition, finishing almost 30 m in front of the field. The 5,000 m was a sterner test, with the top six runners separated by only a few meters heading into the final stretch. Viren prevailed only by out-sprinting a trio of runners that included New Zealanders Dick Quax and Rod Dixon.
Viren attempted to win the marathon after having secured gold in the 5,000 m and 10,000 m events, a feat not done since Emil Zátopek's triple gold medal performance at the 1952 games held in Helsinki. He was not successful, but finished the race in a very respectable fifth place.
Viren competed at the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow (an event that was boycotted by 65 nations, including the United States, in protest of the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan). There he placed fifth in the 10,000 m and did not complete the marathon.
He retired from competition following the 1980 Olympics. After his athletic career, Viren continued to work as a police officer in Helsinki. His running became confined to sporadic recreational outings. In 1999, his political interests culminated in his election as a member of Parliament in Finland's Conservative Party.