Lasse Viren wins 5000m gold in Montreal
Lasse Virén of Finland winning gold in the 5,000 meters in Montreal

When you fall in a highly competitive race, it’s over for you, particularly for sprinters. But even in long-distance foot races, falling not only places you way in the back of the pack, it becomes a psychological burden as you see your competitors fly by you.

And yet, Lasse Virén of Finland was not fazed. Virén was competing in the 10,000 meters in the Munich Olympics in 1972. It was the 12th lap of a 25-lap race when Virén’s leg hit the leg of Belgian runner, Emiel Puttemans, sending Virén tumbling to the cinder track. Famed Tunisian runner, Mohamed Gammoudi, also took a nasty spill tripping over Virén’s body. Virén, who fell behind by 20 meters, got up quickly, and re-started those long strides, getting back into the race after four laps.

In the last lap and a half, Virén stepped on the gas. But as this thrilling account from The Guardian relates, the man whose leg sent Virén to the ground 12 laps earlier was now breathing down Virén’s back.

At the bell, Virén raised the pace yet again, and Yifter was unable to respond. The air was suddenly too thick for his limbs. But Puttemans held on. The small Belgian, his face contorting with determination, closed the slight gap that Virén had opened up. ‘I believed I had a chance to win the gold medal,’ he said later. ‘Lasse was five metres ahead and I knew I must take my chance going into the final bend.’ So Puttemans moved on to Virén’s shoulder. The Finn accelerated. ‘As we came round to the home straight,’ Puttemans said, ‘I knew the gold was his.’ You could see Puttemans absorb this painful truth, but make an instantaneous reappraisal of ambition: he looked over his shoulder, to make sure Yifter was far enough behind him to be no threat, and settled for silver.

Virén not only won, but smashed the world record for the 10,000 meter race that had stood for seven years. Virén went on to win the 5,000 meter competition in the Munich Games, accomplishing the so-called “double”, which had been done only three times prior to Virén, and three times after him. Even more amazingly, Virén did it again, winning both the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the Montreal Games in 1976, the only “Double-Double” ever.

You can watch Virén years later watching himself win the 10,000 meter race in Munich on video below.

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Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo,
Billy Mills Crossing the finish line, from the boo, “Tokyo Olympiad 1964_Kyodo News” Agency

At every Olympics, there are people who stand out brighter than others. In 1964, everybody had a Billy Mills story. The legendary Native American champion of the 10,000 meter race, Mills was not expected to medal in Tokyo, and thus appeared to come out of nowhere to win one of the most dramatic races in Tokyo.

Silver medalist  3-meter springboard diver, Frank Gorman, remembers sitting in the Olympic Village common area watching the Olympic Games on TV. “He was a guy I didn’t know until I got to Tokyo. In between our work outs we would sit and watch the games on the local TV, just the two of us. I understood that he was training hard, and that nobody thought he had a prayer, nobody was putting any money on him. But he told me he was excited about being there, and that he had been working his whole life at being the best.”

Gold medalist 400-meer runner, Ulis Williams, watched Mills in the stadium. “Towards the end, I think the last 200 meters, we see him picking up speed. We couldn’t believe it, and we’re shouting ‘Look at him go!’ He tried to go around a guy, and they were moving to block him, but he burst through the center with his arms up. We absolutely couldn’t believe it.”

Billy Mills (middle) and Ron Clarke (right) in 10000 meter run, from the book,
Billy Mills and Ron Clarke in 10000 meter run, from the book, “The Olympic Century – XVIII Olympiad – Volume 16”

For gymnast, Makoto Sakamoto, he remembers watching the 10,000 meter race on a black and white TV in a common room. “I remember it’s the final lap. A bunch of us, 30 of us, we were just yelling our heads off! And he wins the thing. What a dramatic finish! Mills comes out of nowhere and wins!”

Peter Snell remembers agreeing with his teammates that Australian Ron Clarke was a definite favorite to win, and had no expectations for any American, let alone Billy Mills to be in the running. As he wrote in his biography, No Bugles, No Drums, “This is no personal reflection on the tremendous performance of the winner Billy Mills. It’s just that Americans are traditional masters of the short track events and we other nations are naturally not too keen to see that mastery extended to the longer races.”

Snell, the incredible middle-distance runner from New Zealand, who won gold in both the 800 and1500 meters races in Tokyo wrote that “the 10,000 lives in my memory as one of the most exciting

The 10,000 meter race is a grueling race. At the IAAF World Track and Field Championship in Beijing, on August 24, American Molly Huddle would see Vivian Cheruiyot and Gelete Burka ahead of her as they crossed the finish line. Exhausted but elated to be crossing the line in third, Huddle raised her hands in triumph.

And in that split second before the line, fellow American and teammate, Emily Infeld passed Huddle to win the bronze.

There are no words really that can console the Mary Huddle’s of the world…except that you are human, and you are not alone.

Here is a great piece from NPR that highlights some of the more painful examples of premature celebration.

Ron Clarke at Melbourne OlympicsAt the tender age of 18, Ron Clarke carried the Olympic torch through the Melbourne Cricket Ground up the steps to light the Olympic cauldron. Clarke would go on to break 17 world records in middle distance running, as well as take the bronze medal in the 10,000 meter race in Tokyo in 1964.

The self-described “accountant who also runs”, had a reputation for being a sportsman, and would go on to become the mayor of Queensland’s Gold Coast.

Here is a film clip of Ron Clarke showing his training routine as he prepared for competition in Europe before flying over to Tokyo for the 1964 Games, where he would captain the Australian athletics team.