By: Patrick Price, editor of writingaboutrunning.com
Most running fans have heard of the great Lasse Virén. Before there was Virén, there was Veikko Karvonen, Antti Viskari, Paavo Kotila, Eino Oksanen and Aurèle Vandendriessche. These are the men that inspired Virén and a nation of Finns. These are also winners of the Boston Marathon from 1954 to 1962, with Oksananen on the list of very few three time champions (1959, 1961, 1962).
Why Boston? Mr. Arvi Tokkola, founder of the National Finnish-American Marathon Committee, was the main reason for Finns to race in Boston (instead of the more popular New York City). Tokkola chose Boston because of it’s importance in the international running world. In his mind, it was the biggest competition that the Finns had yet to conquer, as they routinely dominated the Olympic fields in the distance events on the track. Veikko Karvonen led the way with a strong debut in 1953, finishing as the runner up. Things would change in 1954, as Karvonen kicked off a barrage of wins for the Flying Finns.
Picture: Arvi Tokkola
Karvonen’s win was special. In October of 1953, he squared off against the famed Englishman, Jim Peters, in his hometown of Turku, Finland. Coming off his strong performance at Boston, hopes were high. Peters was too strong on this particular day, besting Karvonen by over seven minutes and setting a World Record in the process. In Boston, the tides would turn. Karvonen paced off of Peters through 30k and in the true “spirit of sisu (Finish Spirit),” took the lead at Heartbreak Hill and never turned back.
Picture: Veikko Karvonen
This win for Karvonen helped propel him to the Bronze Medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. He would be the last Finnish man to win an Olympic Medal in the marathon. Karvonen would return to Boston in 1957, only to finish as the runner up to the famed Johnny “The Younger” Kelley.
Picture: Veikko Karvonen
Also in 1956, Antti Viskari won Boston in a course record of 2:14:14, a course record by over four minutes. This would be the last year they ran the original course.
These men set the tone for what would be a Finnish domination of the Men’s Distance events on the track in the 1970′s. In 1972, Olavi Suomalainen would become the last Finnish man to win the Boston Marathon. Suomaleinen won this race in a pair of bright red Karhu racers. At the time, Suomalainen was a 25 year old engineering student who had never won anything and had never run anything over 25km. Just like Veikko Karvonen in 1954, Suomalainen made his mark in the Newton Hills to pull even with the leaders and subsequently take over during the last five miles. The “spirit of sisu” was once again alive and on display in Boston.
Picture: Olavi Suomalainen
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