I’m old enough to remember when Finland, a country with a population about the same as that of Massachusetts, was still a world power in distance running. In the 1970’s, runners such as Juha Väätäinen, Lasse Virén, Pekka Vasala, Tapio Kantanen, regularly won championship medals and set world records. In the 1972 Olympics, Virén won gold medals in the 5000 and 10000, and Vasala won gold in the 1500. Virén would repeat his double in Montreal four years later.
And then Finnish distance running faded from the scene, not all at once perhaps, but inexorably. In the 1980s and 1990s, African-born runners began their rise to dominance, and Finland, it seemed, was left behind. The small country that had given the world Paavo Nurmi, Hannes Kolehmainen, and Ville Ritola in the 1920s, numerous winners of the Boston Marathon in subsequent decades, and Viren in the 1970s, couldn’t keep up with a new generation of Kenyans and Ethiopians, among others. Almost all of the Finnish national records for track events from 800 meters to 10k were set in the 1970s and 1980s. The Finnish marathon record is more recent, but Janne Holmen’s 2:10:46 from 2008 would put him a mile and a half behind the world’s best marathon runners these days.
But Finnish athletic pride in track and field did not die. Instead, that pride focused on other events, and in particular, on the javelin. In the last two decades, Finland has been renowned for great javelin throwers, with Finnish athletes making the podium in six of the last eight Olympic Games, and six of the last nine World Championships. A couple of days ago in Beijing, 2007 World Champion Tero Pitkämäki brought home another medal, earning bronze.
But the athletes who beat Pitkämäki in Beijing, relegating him to third in the world, were not Czech or Norwegian or German, they were African, and both of them — Kenya’s Julius Yego of Kenya and Egypt’s Ihab Abdelrahman — had been to Finland and trained with Finnish coach Petteri Piironen.
Yego, who won gold with a massive throw of 92.72 in the third round, is the first Kenyan to win a world championship in a field event. In 2012, he very nearly became the first-ever African athlete to medal in the javelin before being edged out of the bronze medal position in the sixth and final round of throws. Since then, he has improved his personal best by over 7 meters, and with his throw in Beijing, has the two best throws in the world in 2015, and the third best throw all time.
Abdelrahman, who won silver with a throw of 88.99 in the second round, became the first Egyptian male athlete to medal at the WCs, and only the third non-European to medal in the javelin.
I can’t help but think back on how Kip Keino’s Olympic triumph in 1968 inspired a generation of Kenyan distance runners. Might we see the same thing happen with a new generation of Kenyan throwers, as the country celebrates Yego’s gold medal? And if that happens, will history note the fact that after YouTube videos had gotten him started, as he was preparing for the 2012 London Olympics, Julius Yego left Kenya and traveled to the small town of Kuortane in Western Finland? And while there, that he studied javelin technique for three months with a Finnish coach who can now claim to have guided the World gold and silver medalists?
Out of Africa and all the way to the Arctic Circle.
I wonder if, in another generation, we’ll look back to 2015 and marvel that there was a time when Finland, not Kenya, truly stood at the center of the javelin-throwing world?