- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

HELSINKI — On Sept.3, 1972, Lasse Viren began his trek toward legendary status in track and field.

Twelve laps into the 25-lap, 10,000-meter finals of the Munich Olympics, Viren got entangled with American Frank Shorter and Tunisian Mohamed Gammoudi, and Viren and Gammoudi tumbled into the infield.

Viren got up; Gammoudi did not. Viren quickly caught the lead pack and hung on. The pack was down to five with 600 meters to go when Viren started his sprint, running away to win the gold medal in the world-record time of 27 minutes 38.4 seconds.

Seven days later, Viren, a 23-year-old policeman from Finland, collected gold again, this time overpowering Gammoudi and American Steve Prefontaine in the final stretch of the 5,000-meter finals to break the tape in 13:26.4.

Remarkably, four years later in Montreal, Viren again peaked and repeated the 5,000/10,000 double, the only time any athlete has done so. The second time he added a fifth-place finish in his first marathon to his Olympic resume, with just 20 hours’ rest after the 5,000 final.

His Olympic career ended in Moscow in 1980 with a fifth in the 10,000 meters after an injury the previous month severely altered his training.

Today Viren is one of 200 members of Finland’s Parliament and father of an 18-year-old son, Matti, and two younger children. In an interview, conducted partly in English and partly through interpreter Johanna Lemola, Viren covered a variety of topics.

On his most memorable achievement: “The first Olympic gold. But if you talk outside sports, that’s different. I could say to have a good supportive family around me. So family Number1, sports Number2.”

On his idol: “Everybody has to have an idol. Historically, Paavo Nurmi [one of the “Flying Finns” who won nine Olympic golds and three silvers between 1920 and 1928] was my idol, but I never met him. The day I was supposed to [Oct. 2, 1973], he died. I got a call at home, and we just brought flowers to his statue in front of the Olympic stadium.”

On the moment he realized he could be an Olympian: “In the ‘71 European Championships — it was only then that I thought I could run in the Olympics. At first I was only going to run the 5,000 but my good result in Oslo in the 10,000 meters put a little more pressure on me to run the 10,000 in the Olympics, too.”

On his fall in the 10,000 in Munich: “It happens every once in awhile. But in an Olympic race, it’s different. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. The first runners slowed down and [Shorter] was behind me and put his hand up to stop from running into me. All I can remember is that I was lying on the grass and somebody else was falling over me, and I was just hoping he wouldn’t fall on my legs. My first idea after I got up was that I was running in the wrong direction because the crowd was yelling. The only thing I had on my mind was to get up and go after the other runners.”

On doing his debut marathon after the 10,000 and 5,000 in Montreal: “The idea came from [Czech running great Emil] Zatopek doing all three [winning the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon] in [the 1952] Helsinki [Olympics]. It was a joke that nobody could do it any more. There was a lot of criticism here in Finland that how could somebody do all three? My coach and I worked up a plan. There was no time to regain my nutrition. There were only 20 hours between the 5,000 final and the marathon. I have [silver medalist] Frank to thank for that. My coach said to just run with Frank — he wouldn’t do anything stupid.”

On rumors that he was involved in the then-legal practice of blood boosting, which involved freezing blood then having it returned to the body later to improve the oxygen content and promote quicker recovery: “I don’t have any more information than you do, and I’m not commenting on any rumors concerning anybody else. … They know what they did and I know what I did.”

On political aspirations, with six years in Parliament down and two to go: “I haven’t decided if I will re-run. Politics are very different than sport. With running, you are your own person. In politics, this is like a very slow run.”

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