Finland's Lasse Viren achieves Olympic double in Munich


His name is now familiar to fans of distance running, but in 1972 Lasse Viren was not a household name, and nor even the favourite to win either the 5,000m or the 10,000m. Nevertheless, when you look back on his career, you see an athlete who completely focused on preparing for Olympic success. If it wasn't Olympic, Viren wasn't all that interested.

At home in Finland, Viren was a policeman, as well as a talented runner. He had competed in the European Championships in 1971, but had finished way outside the medals in both the 5,0000m and the 10,000m. Even then, he was targeting his attention towards the 1972 Games in Munich.

His first event was the 10,000m. A total of 50 athletes had entered, which meant that qualifying heats had to be used for the first time in more than half a century. Viren coasted through his heat in fourth place, aware that he needed to conserve his energy for the finalOne of his great skills was in running the bends precisely so as not to add any more distance than was necessary, but he did make one mistake in that final – and it was a big one. At around the halfway point, with Britain's David Bedford leading, Viren tripped and fell to the track. Mohammed Gammoudi, another of the front-runners, fell over him and, a couple of laps later, was forced to withdraw.

Viren, by contrast, actually seemed energised by his fall. He picked himself up, ran quickly back to rejoin the pack, and carried on as if nothing had ever happened. He moved to the front of the field, overtaking Bedford and trading first place with several of his rivals.

The race became a contest between Viren and Emiel Puttemans from Belgium, who was on his shoulder with 150m to go. Viren accelerated hard, and this time there was no response from Puttemans. He crossed the line to take his first gold, breaking Ron Clarke's world record in the process, a mark that had stood for seven years.

The second gold came a week later. In the 5,000m, America's ever-confident Steve Prefontaine said he would run the last mile in less than four minutes but it was Viren and Gammoudi who led going into the final lap. Viren was ahead, then Gammoudi, then Viren regained the advantage into the final 100m, and victory was his once more, having run that final mile in a startlingly quick 4:01.2secs. Gammoudi won silver, but Viren's lofty ambition, of completing the 5,000m and 10,000m double, was fulfilled.