Turku, Finland, 13 June 1897 | Helsinki, Finland, 2 October 1973
Olympic athlete, runner, businessman, contractor
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Paavo Johannes Nurmi was born June 13, 1897, to Johan and Matilda Nurmi, in Turku, Finland. Nurmi could run 1500 meters in 5:02, by the age of 11. Finland runner Hannes Kolehmainen’s performance in the 1912 Summer Olympics inspired Nurmi to focus on his love of running. He set his first national record for the 3000 m on May 29, 1920, and in June won both the 1500 m and 5000 m at the Olympic trials.
In August, Nurmi competed in the 1920 Summer Olympics, in Antwerp, Belgium. His first medal was a silver in the 5000 m. Also in 1920, he won gold medals for the 10,000 m, the cross-country race, and the cross-country team event. His success earned him a scholarship to Teollisuuskoulu industrial school in Helsinki.
In 1921, he set the world record for the 10,000 m, in Stockholm, and the following year he broke the records for the 2000 m, 3000 m, and 5000 m. The year after, he set additional records for the mile and the 1500 m. He is the only runner who ever hold the records for the 5000 m, 10.000 m, and the mile at the same time. In 1923, he graduated with an engineering degree and returned to his hometown to prepare for the next Olympics.
He traveled to Paris to compete in the 1924 Summer Olympics. He easily won the 1500 m, breaking the Olympic record by three seconds. Two hours later, he earned a gold medal for the 5000 m. The 113 °F (45 °C) heat caused more than half of the cross-country competitors to abandon the race altogether. Nurmi won the race by a margin of almost a minute and a half. Later that day, he also earned the gold for the 3000 m team race.
In 1925, Nurmi toured the United States, completing 55 events in five months. He won 51 of the events and broke 10 more indoor world records. In 1926, he set a new record for the 3000 m. In the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, Nurmi won the gold for the 10,000 m, and silver for the 5000 m and 3000 m.
Less than three days before his first competition in the 1932 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) barred him from participating, based on erroneous reports that he had been paid to race in events in Germany. In August of 1934, the IAAF voted to uphold his suspension from international amateur athletics. Nurmi retired from running after winning his last 10,000 m race on September 16, 1934.
He married socialite Sylvi Laaksonen in 1932, but they divorced in 1935, because she did not want their son Matti to be raised as a runner, and also claimed that Nurmi was too obsessed with athletics.
He coached runners for the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. He opened a men’s clothing store in 1936, which became a tourist attraction. He also began working as a contractor, building forty apartment buildings in Helsinki. He quickly became a millionaire and eventually was among Finland’s richest people. On February 18, 1966, Nurmi competed for the last time at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
Nurmi died on October 1, 1973, at the age of 76, in Helsinki and had a state funeral. In his career, he broke 22 official world records. The Time magazine named him the greatest Olympian of all time in 1996, and he was among the first 12 people inducted into the newly established IAAF Hall of Fame in 2012.