|Competitor for Finland|
|Gold||1972 Munich||5,000 metres|
|Gold||1972 Munich||10,000 metres|
|Gold||1976 Montreal||5,000 metres|
|Gold||1976 Montreal||10,000 metres|
|Bronze||1974 Rome||5,000 metres|
Lasse Artturi Virén (born July 22, 1949) is a former Finnish long-distance runner, winner of four gold medals at the 1972 and 1976 Summer Olympics. Born in Myrskylä, Finland, Virén recaptured the image of the "Flying Finns" promoted by runners like Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, and Ville Ritola in the 1920s.
A police officer from Myrskylä, Virén debuted on the international scene in 1971. His performances at the 1971 European Championships in Helsinki were overshadowed by fellow Finn Juha Väätäinen, who captured gold medals in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meter events with Virén settling for modest 7th and 17th placings, respectively. According to Viren himself and his coach, Rolf Haikkola, Viren could have placed better in the 1971 European Athletics Championships, if he had done the "emptying exercise" of his system earlier - according to Haikkola, he followed the Finnish Athletics Federation's leaders' bad advice - and if he hadn't been pushed almost to the point of falling at the start of the last lap in the 5,000-metre final. The "emptying exercise" of top runners means that they push their bodies to a total exhaustion or lack of energy so that their bodies can again receive much energy, and so that they can repeat their top race performances. Shortly after those European Championships, he broke Väätäinen's fresh Finnish record at 5,000 metres.
Buoyed by a brutal training regimen in Thomson's Falls, Kenya, and very impressive results, which included the smashing of the 2-mile world record and wins against Great Britain and Spain in a meet held in Helsinki in the summer of 1972, Lasse Virén entered the Munich Games as a dark horse.
At the 1972 Summer Olympics at Munich, Virén won both the 5,000 and the 10,000 meter events. At the 10,000 meter final held on September 3, Virén broke Ron Clarke's 7-year old world record despite falling in the twelfth lap after getting tangled with Emiel Puttemans. Tunisia's Mohamed Gammoudi also fell after being tripped by Viren's legs. In less than 150 metres, Virén caught up with the leading pack after losing about 20 to 30 meters. With 600 meters to go, Virén dropped the hammer and started an unprecedented lap-and-a-half kick that only Belgium's Emiel Puttemans was able to respond to, but not outmatch. The Finn won the race in 27:38:40 (which is still the current record for the Olympiastadion). He became the fourth athlete to win both events in the same Olympics, joining fellow Finn Hannes Kolehmainen (1912), Czechoslovakia's Emil Zátopek (1952) and Russian Vladimir Kuts (1956). After them, Miruts Yifter (1980) and Kenenisa Bekele (2008), both from Ethiopia, accomplished the coveted "double". However, it must be stated that Kolehmainen, Virén (on both occasions) and Yifter were the only ones in this illustrious list that had to endure 10,000 meter heats to qualify for the 10,000 meter final, thus making winning the "double" more challenging. In the 5,000-metre final one week later, Viren could keep up with Steve Prefontaine of the United States, Gammoudi, Puttemans and Ian Stewart of Great Britain, in the race's quick final four laps. He sprinted past Gammoudi with around 110 to 120 metres to go, and won in 13:26.4, one second before Gammoudi. Four days later, despite the wet, chilly and windy weather in Helsinki's Olympic Stadium, he set a new world record at 5,000 metres by running 13:16.4. About one week later, Puttemans broke the record by roughly three seconds.
Virén ran at lower levels between the Olympics. At the 1976 Summer Olympics, Virén again won both events, coined later as the "double double", and became the only repeat winner of the 5,000 meter race in Olympic history. He won the 10,000-metre final comparatively easily, because even Great Britain's Brendan Foster dropped from the steadily accelerating pace of Portugal's Carlos Lopes at 8,000 metres, and because Lopes back then was unable to radically increase his pace in the last lap or so of track races. Virén passed Lopes at around 9,550 metres and defeated him by 4.79 seconds. In the 5,000 meter final, he held off all-time greats Dick Quax, Rod Dixon, and Brendan Foster (all world-class at 1,500 m) with a devastating display of front-running over the last few laps. To those who watched him, the display was awesomely inspiring to the point that his last 1,500 meters in that final would have placed him 8th in the 1,500-meter final held at those Games. The top four runners sprinted to the finish line inside six metres, a rare occurrence in major international championships (see, for example, "The Montreal Olympic Book" and "The Gilded Spikes"; the editor of this article has calculated this figure using Viren's estimated last 100-metre split time of 13.0 seconds and the difference between Viren and Rod Dixon at the finish line - 0.74 seconds). Remarkably, 18 hours after the 5,000-meter final, he competed in the men's marathon and finished fifth in 2:13:11.
Lasse Virén ended his career after the 1980 Summer Olympics, where he placed fifth in the 10,000 meters. Virén qualified for that final, placing fourth and having clocked a disappointing 28:45 in his heat. Only after Ireland's John Treacy collapsed during his heat, due to heat stroke, was Virén given an automatic place in the final. Otherwise, he would have qualified for the final as a fastest loser. He pushed that final's leading pack until the last 300 meters, before succumbing to the lethal kick of Miruts Yifter, the eventual gold medalist. Some people claimed that Viren could have run better in the 1980 Olympics if he had not done so much marathon-like training. Viren himself believes that if he had not injured his leg shortly before the Olympics, he would have run clearly better. Viren skipped the 5,000-metre race and chose to compete in the Olympic marathon, where he started quite well, running over 20 kilometres in the lead group. Stomach problems, however, caused him to drop out before 30 kilometres. In the autumn of 1980, he announced his retirement from active competitive running.
Training and rumors
Virén's wins were not without controversy. Firstly, following his 10,000 meter final win at the Montreal games, he took off his Onitsuka Tiger (ASICS) Runspark shoes and waved them to the crowd on his victory lap. The International Olympic Committee accused Virén of malicious intent, such as showing the tiger stripe logo on the shoes, but he claimed that he had a blister. Thus, the IOC suspended Virén from taking place in the 5,000-meter final after qualifying in his heat. An appeal followed and he was allowed to enter the race, two hours before gun time.
Virén, with his coach Rolf Haikkola, prepared with one focus in mind: coming to a peak for the Olympics. He accumulated thousands of kilometres of running in his local forests and in winter training destinations, running at gradually increasing intensities over intervening years to prepare a huge foundation from which to peak with his anaerobic work. All else was considered only as preparation: even European championships.
One factor in Virén's Olympic victories, especially at the 1972 Olympics 5,000 and 10,000 metres, has received little attention: his careful running of almost all the bends (curves) near the inner edge of the first lane, which spared him tens of metres compared to his chief rivals. More specifically, the United States' Steve Prefontaine gave Virén a handicap of over forty metres at the 1972 Olympics 5,000 metres, and Belgium's Emiel Puttemans gave Virén a handicap of about fifty metres at the 1972 Olympics 10,000 metres, by running many bends wide on the outer edge of the first lane or sometimes even on the second lane. This skillful practice of avoiding the running of extra metres in long-distance track races is called "bend (curve) mathematics" (see Mauno Saari, "Lasse Viren: The Secrets of Running" / Lasse Viren - Juoksemisen salaisuudet, Finland, 1979).
Critics say Virén did little of note between Olympics in competition, and was often suspected of blood doping; however, after difficult leg surgery early in 1974, and between his Olympic double victories, he won a bronze medal in 5,000m at the European championships behind the British athlete Brendan Foster with a time of 13:24.57. Only two days later, in Helsinki, Virén won a 5,000 m race in 13:26.0, defeating Anders Gärderud (Sweden), and Olympic finalist Steve Prefontaine (USA). Only three days after, Virén again encountered Foster in a 2-mile (3.2-km) race at the Coca-Cola international meeting in London (Crystal Palace). Foster was again victorious, with Virén finishing fourth, only 0.06 seconds behind, coming in second place. Virén recorded his fastest 10,000 m with a winning time of 28:22.6 at a Finland vs. Soviet Union international match on 21 September. Furthermore, Virén managed to break the world record in the 2-mile and the 5,000 meters outside the Olympics (though both were done in close proximity to the 1972 Olympics, his 8:14.0 for two miles being run on August 14, 1972 and his 13:16.4 for 5,000 meters on September 14, 1972).
It is noteworthy that Virén ran much closer to his Olympic years' best times (1972, 1976 and 1980) in the intermittent non-Olympic years (1973 to 1975 and 1977 to 1979) at 5,000 metres, always breaking 13:36 and sometimes breaking 13:30, than at 10,000 metres over which he only broke 28 minutes in those Olympic years.
Established in 1977 by the Finnish sculptor Eino, the Lasse Viren Finnish Invitational, now the "Lasse Viren 20K," has become a popular, annual off-road running race in Sycamore Canyon, part of Point Mugu State Park near Malibu, California
Since his career ended he has become a well-known figure in Finland, eventually holding a seat in the Finnish Parliament with the National Coalition Party from 1999 until 2007 and from 2010 to 2011. Virén did not seek for re-election in 2011.