He and Paavo Nurmi cut a swathe through the opposition, winning a clutch of gold medals in a period of dominance not seen again until African runners came to the fore decades later. While the running machine Nurmi won nine gold medals at the 1920, 1924 and 1928 Games, Ritola’s statistics were no less impressive.
Ritola, a wiry, versatile runner, declined an offer to attend the 1920 Games in Antwerp but felt he was ready to compete at the 1924 Olympic Games in Paris after a number of years training in the United States.
Ritola had already etched his name in the Olympic annals with a dashing victory in the 10,000m in a world-record time. Next came the 3,000m steeplechase run over a fascinating course on a 500m circumference track in the French capital. Instead of the barriers and water jumps of today runners were presented with a variety of challenges. Some of the fences runners were required to jump more closely resembled the kind of obstacles you would see in a horse steeplechase with branches, twigs and leaves used to create the barriers.
There were also obstacles that looked like garden fences while the water jump was deep enough to reach most competitors’ knees and resulted in some chaotic tangles.
Ritola pretty much ran through any challenge thrown at him, however. After running the most gentle of semi-finals, he gritted his teeth and destroyed the field with a time of 9 minutes 33.6secs, a new Olympic record.
Ritola also contributed to gold medal wins for Finland in the 3,000m and cross country team events. He was to add 5,000m gold in the Amsterdam Games four years later.