Cross country maestro Mäntyranta flies the flag for Finland

Picture by IOC

By the time he lined up at Innsbruck 1964, Eero Mäntyranta already had one Olympic gold medal to his name, having won the 4x10km cross country relay title at Squaw Valley 1960 with Veikko Hakulinen, Väinö Huhtala and Toimi Alatalo, Hakulinen producing a storming anchor leg to give Finland victory from Norway and the USSR.

Mäntyranta collected world championship gold in the 30km and silver in the 4x10km relay at Zakopane (POL) two years later, following up with victory in the famous Holmenkollen ski festival.

The Finn was at the peak of his considerable powers when he set off as the penultimate starter in the first men’s cross country skiing event of the 1964 Winter Games, the 30km. Holding the lead at every split, he eventually crossed the line in a time of 1:30:50.7 to win by a comfortable margin from Norway’s Harald Grönningen, with the Soviet Union’s Igor Voronchikhin joining them on the podium.

Mäntyranta was back in action 24 hours later in the 15km, where the early running was made by Sweden’s veteran two-time Olympic gold medallist Sixten Jernberg, who set a target of 51:42.2.

Starting 60th, Mäntyranta set a fierce, relentless pace and maintained it all the way to the line to dip under Jernberg’s time by fully 46 seconds. Grönningen followed the flying Finn in to clinch another silver medal and relegate Jernberg to the bronze.

Another medal would come Mäntyranta’s way in the 4x10km relay, a race that saw Sweden, Finland, Norway and the USSR wage a fierce battle for the medals. Setting off on their anchor legs in third and fourth place respectively, Sweden’s Assar Rönnlund and Mäntyranta caught and passed Norway’s Grönningen before reeling in the Soviet Union’s Pavel Kolchin, at which point. Rönnlund sped away to seal gold for the Swedes. Mäntyranta trailed in eight seconds behind as Finland took silver from the USSR and Norway.

The most successful cross-country skier at the 1964 Games, Mäntyranta went on that year to receive the Holmenkollen medal – awarded annually to the most outstanding Nordic sportsperson. A 30km world champion in Oslo in 1966, the winner of three more medals at Grenoble 1968 (a silver in the 15km and bronzes in the 30km and the 4x10km relay), and still skiing for his country at Sapporo 1972, Mäntyranta is Finland’s most successful cross-country skier of all time.

Suspected throughout his career of doping, Mäntyranta had a 20-percent higher red blood cell count than other athletes. It was not until 30 years later that scientists discovered – after testing 200 members of his family – that some 50 of them, including Eero, were born were a rare genetic trait known as congenital polycythemia, which produces a larger number of oxygen-rich red blood cells than normal.


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