When the Flying Finn took America
Paavo Nurmi’s exhausting, amazing, outstanding 1925 tour of the U.S.
When the Flying Finn took America
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 037, February 2022
By Liam Boylan-Pett
January 6, 1925. Calvin Coolidge was the President of the United States, where no one could legally drink alcohol. And Joie Ray—who, as of a few months ago was expected by many to hang up his racing spikes—was standing on the starting line for a 1-mile race at Madison Square Garden, again.
Ray, up until the summer of 1924 and that year’s Olympics, was the U.S.’s premiere middle-distance runner, having won eight national championships in the 1 mile or 1,500 meters. That summer, however, he failed to make the Paris Olympic Team in the event, only qualifying for the 3,000-meter team event, where he and Team USA won bronze. It would have made sense, some in the media opined, that he would not return to the track in 1925. At 29, he was in the twilight of his career. And even though he had excelled on the indoor track—from 1917 to 1924, he won seven Wanamaker 1½-mile championships, which was the marquee event of the Millrose Games at the time—track and field athletes were amateurs. Ray was a cab driver in Chicago to make ends meet.
For a while, the press may have seemed correct. Ray told his friends he was taking three months off and didn’t think about running for a while, living, as reports put it, a more “leisurely” life.
There was, however, something tugging Ray back to the track. He did not take three months off. He told a friend on the east coast—who then relayed the news to the press—that, as of mid-December, he was about six weeks into training and was rounding into form. By the time January 6 rolled around, Ray was fit enough to race.
So, standing on the start line, again, he lurched forward at the crack of the gun, taking the lead. A runner in a blue shirt shadowed his every move. They rumbled around the track and its tight turns, leaning left as they rushed around and straightening out on the home and backstretch. Madison Square Garden, which was on 26th and Madison at that point, had a capacity of 8,000, yet 9,000 spectators crammed the arena around the 146-meter track, puffing plumes of cigar smoke into the air and “yelling themselves hoarse,” as the New York Times reported. After 9 laps, Ray led the runner in blue by about 5 yards. On the backstretch, however, the runner in blue threw in a surge and overtook Ray. He held off Ray’s challenges on the penultimate lap, and once the bell sounded for the final circuit, the runner in blue threw in one more surge and pulled away. Ray strained to stay close, getting passed by one competitor before passing him back to stay in second place, but there was nothing he could do to catch the runner at the front of the race.
Ray crossed the finish line in 4 minutes, 14 seconds, which would have been a world indoor record if not for the winner, who finished 3 yards ahead in 4 minutes, 13.6 seconds.
The crowd grew hoarser. The runner in blue was the greatest runner in the world. In Paris at the 1924 Games, he won five gold medals in the 1,500 and 5,000 meters, individual and team cross-country, and the 3,000-meter team competition.
Now, Paavo Nurmi of Finland was racing in the United States. During that world record run in the mile, he also ran the fastest 1,500 meters ever raced under a roof. Then, less than two hours later, he was racing the 5,000 meters, too, and once again setting a world record with a time of 14 minutes, 44.6 seconds—besting Ray’s mark from 1923.
Nurmi’s performance was the top story of the Times’ sports section the next day. Ray, to the paper’s credit, was called “brilliant” in his effort to stick with Nurmi. But Nurmi, rightfully so, was the main attraction—and he would be for the next few months.
Nurmi was touring the United States. His arrival was covered by the media as if the Pope was visiting, his name filling up the pages and stories about the types of shoes he was training in becoming part of “all the news that’s fit to print.” From January 6 to May 26 over more than 50 races, the U.S. sports world belonged to the Flying Finn.
So, no, Joie Ray did not retire in 1925. Instead, he would need to get used to being second fiddle.
Nurmi was going to stay a while.
Growing up, Paavo Nurmi ran to and from school, and often that run turned into a race. Born June 13, 1897, in Turku, a small coastal town in southwest Finland, Nurmi had just turned 9 when Verner Järvinen won the 1906 Olympic title in the Greek discus throw (this iteration of the Games is no longer recognized, as the Olympics are every four years, and the Greek discus throw was thrown from a pedestal and did not continue past 1908 at the Olympics). The country, as Nurmi told reporter Charles E. Parker for a series of stories in the New York World, turned athletics-crazed after that win. Everyone, from adults to children, wanted to be near a track.
So, when Nurmi ran to school, he would often spot his classmates doing the same. Like a group of runners at summer cross-country camp trying to prove their worth, the children of Turku’s “runs” to class often turned into hammer-fests. The children would go all out to get to school first, running over rutted, dirt roads and grassy fields to get to school. Often, one runner was quicker than the rest: Nurmi.
And by 1907, Nurmi knew he was pretty good. It took some convincing, but the 10-year-old was able to talk a few timekeepers at the local cinder track into timing him for 1,500 meters. As it was described, the race officials looked at their watches with mouths wide open after Nurmi crossed the line. They all shared what the clocks read as if their’s had to have been lying. At 10, and in iron-heeled shoes, Nurmi ran 1,500 meters in 5 minutes, 2 seconds. He was the talk of the town in Turku.
Everyone in town attempted to make sense of the feat—the time was less than a minute off the world record at the time and was way too close to the top Finnish senior athletes. The son of a cabinetmaker who had no athletic accomplishments to his name, Nurmi had one older sister and a younger sister and brother. The only thing they could come up with was that the Nurmis were vegetarians. Paavo wouldn’t eat meat until he was 18.
Whatever the reason, Nurmi had made his mark with his near sub-5-minute 1,500. He would not be a one-hit wonder. As he would later say, he made up his mind that day that he would be one of the best runners ever.
Still too young to race against Finns fighting for Olympic spots, Nurmi began training. Carrying a small pocket watch to take splits, he would pick a distance and race to it, hoping to beat the time on he set for himself. (Later, Nurmi would become famous in the U.S. for carrying a watch while he trained and raced, someone Strava would have loved to have onboard with his meticulous timekeeping.)
In 1914, the Finnish athletic club in Turku invited him to meets. He was dominant. Two years earlier he finished school and worked an apprenticeship as a mechanic and engineer that did not slow him down. By the end of the year, he won his first junior national championship in the 3,000 meters.
He returned from the competition to Turku a hero, a band there to greet him and congratulate the young star on a victory. He defended that 3,000-meter junior title in 1915, but the next year was not what Nurmi and his watch had drawn up. He lost at the 1916 Olympic Trials—racing in open competitions, it was the first time he had not won a race—and failed to make the Olympic team.
Nurmi was doing his best to keep up with his apprenticeship and his athletics, but it was, according to him, a fool’s game. So, in 1918, once he was finally finished with his schooling, Nurmi was ready.
The boy who had raced to school almost daily was now going to race the world’s best. And, according to his 10-year-old self, he was going to beat them.
By the time he was pulling away from Joie Ray on the bell lap of the Finnish-American A.C. Meeting, Paavo Nurmi had beaten nearly everyone he raced. With eight gold medals and one silver to his name through the 1920 and ’24 Games, there was not much else for Nurmi to prove. The three world records in one night only added to the American legend of the Flying Finn or Phantom Finn, as he had been called in the media.
He was just getting started. After those two January 6 races, Nurmi had a nine-day break until his next competition. From January 15 on, however, Nurmi chose violence. Here’s how the schedule went down:
January 6 – Finnish-American A.C. Meet – Madison Square Garden, New York
See above for a race description.
Total Races: 2
Total W.R.: 3
January 15 – Municipal A.A. Games – Madison Square Garden, New York
Gunnar Nilson and Ilmar Prim still had two laps to go in the 3,000 meters when the crowd’s roar grew louder, for the Flying Finn was lapping them. Nurmi was on his way to another three-world-record night. To be fair, the world records were obscure and ridiculous, but they were world records nonetheless (at that point, if there were a World Athletics to ratifying marks and set official distances, the press didn’t seem to care). Nurmi crossed 1¾ miles in 7 minutes, 55.6 seconds, 3,000 meters in 8 minutes, 26.8 seconds, and hurled past the finish line for another few steps to set a new world record of 8 minutes, 29 seconds for 1⅞ miles.
“In last night’s race the records were as toys before Nurmi’s devastating pace,” the Associated Press reported.
Total Races: 3
Total W.R.: 6
January 16 – Illinois A.C. Handicap – The Coliseum, Chicago
He rode a train all night and all day following his three-record run the night before, but nothing could stop Nurmi’s record assault from slowing in Chicago January 16. The train pulled into Chicago at 8:15 p.m., and Nurmi rushed to a taxicab that had been sent for him. Less than two hours after arriving at the arena, Nurmi was surging from the start line.
Joie Ray, who had told the press he would beat Nurmi in his hometown, was even farther back than he had been 10 days earlier in New York, losing by half a lap as Nurmi ran from the front, pushing the pace the entire way. He broke his own world record in the 1¾ miles, running 7 minutes, 55.4 seconds in front of 6,000 chanting fans.
Less than 30 minutes later, Nurmi was off to the train station again. By 11 p.m. he was on his way back to New York. There was another race to run.
Total Races: 4
Total W.R.: 7
January 17 – Fordham University A.A.U. Games – 102nd Engineers Armory, New York
Running in the same location that would eventually host the Millrose Games beginning in 2012, Nurmi, who rode a train all night and all day—with a 15-minute transfer in Buffalo where paparazzi from The Buffalo Times captured photos of him during his transfer—and arrived less than an hour before his race, had one more surprise before his third race in three days: His three competitors were given head starts.
Still, Nurmi, racing with his signature pocket watch in hand, methodically paced his way around the track, running 2,000 meters in a world record of 5 minutes, 33 seconds, winning by over 25 yards even after the handicap.
Total Races: 5
Total W.R.: 8
January 21 – St. Joseph’s Catholic Club Games – Newark Armory, New Jersey
Once again, his competitors were given a handicap of 150 meters. Once again, Nurmi demolished the field in the 2¾ mile special event in Newark. He caught up to the field 2,400 meters into the race and ended up lapping each of his three competitors twice. Still, only four days removed from a weekend of trains and races, Nurmi put on a thrilling sprint for the crowd, finishing in 13 minutes, 3 seconds for the 2¾-mile race. For good measure, Nurmi broke his country mate’s Hannes Kolemainen’s record in the 2¼-mile race, too, in 10 minutes, 42.2 seconds.
Total Races: 6
Total W.R.: 10
January 24 – Brooklyn College Club Track Meet – 13th Regiment Armory, Brooklyn
For the first time on his tour of America, Paavo Nurmi, who reportedly forgot his trademark pocket watch, failed to cross the finish line first. Thanks to a 100-meter head start, Finnish runner Gunner Nilson held off a furious Nurmi sprint over the final two laps to win the 2,000-yard handicap special—both athletes wowing the crowd with their grit over the final circuits.
Nurmi would not fail at his other regularly planned accomplishments: He set two world records. His 2,000-yard time of 5 minutes, 0.8 seconds and just moments before that, set a world record of 4 minutes, 58 seconds in the 1⅛ mile.
Total Races: 7
Total W.R.: 12
January 27 and 28 – Millrose Games – Madison Square Garden, New York
Then as they are now, the Millrose Games were the premiere meet of the New York schedule. In 1925, they were held over two days, likely because if that meant two opportunities to showcase the Flying Finn, the Millrose Games organizers were going to take it.
On night one of the competition, Nurmi, coming off his first “loss” in a handicap race, was expected by some to lose again. He was facing Joie Ray, this time in the ¾-mile race, a sprint for Nurmi. Finally not the favorite, Nurmi let Ray dictate the race, sitting on the American for 7 laps. Once again, however, Nurmi proved too strong, taking off and distancing himself by 10 yards over the final, 146-meter circuit. For good measure, Nurmi broke his 13th world record, running 3 minutes, 3.8 seconds to shatter the previous mark.
Night two of the Millrose Games was no different. In the Wanamaker 1½ mile, Nurmi went to the lead from the gun, looked at his watch intermittently, and simply ran away with the race to win the John Wanamaker Cup. Ray, who had won seven of the eight previous Wanamaker crowns, dropped out after a few laps. Nurmi notched two more world records, setting the 1¼ mile mark enroute to his 1½-mile record of 6 minutes, 39.4 seconds.
Like every other race at the time, the Millrose Games were Nurmi’s.
Total Races: 9
Total W.R.: 15
January 30 – Morningside A.C. Games – 102nd Engineers Armory, New York
It’s not that the newspaper headline writers were mad, they were just disappointed. Sure, Nurmi won the 1⅛ mile in Washington Heights, but he failed to break the world record in the event.
“NURMI FAILS TO LOWER RECORD” – The Journal and Courier, Lafayette, IN
“PAAVO NURMI SLOWS UP RACE” – The Knoxville Journal and Tribune
“PAAVO NURMI IS NOT SO GOOD IN HIS LAST EVENT” – The Columbia Record
Imagine he lost a race?
Total Races: 10
Total W.R.: 15
January 31 – Boston A.A. Games – Boston Arena, Boston
Nurmi must have been losing it. For the second consecutive night, he failed to break a world record, this time in the 2-mile.
It was an event he would improve on.
Total Races: 11
Total W.R.: 15
February 3 – Western Union Games – Madison Square Garden, New York
After a two-race drought, Nurmi was setting records again. With the help of Verne Booth, who fought and fought to stay ahead of Nurmi to avoid being lapped, Nurmi had a rabbit of sorts as he set the world mark for 2¼ miles.
Total Races: 12
Total W.R.: 16
February 4 – Newark A.C. – 113th Infantry Armory, New Jersey
Racing the 2½ mile—and winning easily against some of his usual competitors, Prim and Nilson—Nurmi crossed 4,000 yards in 10 minutes, 55 seconds to set a new world best and added one more in the 4,000 meters. He missed the 2½-mile mark, but reports were that he was conserving energy for a February 7 showdown with the 2 mile.
You know what else might have helped conserve some energy? I don’t know, maybe sitting out at least one of the 13 races you ran over the last month?
Total Races: 13
Total W.R.: 18
February 7 – Wilco A.A. Meet – 13th Regiment Armory, Brooklyn
Poor Joie Ray. He has been singled out as the competitor most defeated by Nurmi in this story. For all the Ray fans out there, however, it would have been worse in 1925. The headline when Nurmi set a new 2-mile world record in the New York Times was “RAY’S LAST RECORD SMASHED BY NURMI.”
Smashed was a bit of an over exaggeration, as Nurmi’s time of 9 minutes, 8 seconds was just 0.4 seconds better than Ray’s old mark.
Total Races: 14
Total W.R.: 19
February 9 – American Legion Games – Portland, Maine
In front of a crowd of Mainers eager to see Nurmi race, the Flying Finn took his sweet time in dispatching a low-level field of racers. He ran 8 minutes, 14.4 seconds, a disappointing 16 seconds back of the world record in the 3,000 yards.
Total Races: 15
Total W.R.: 19
February 12 – 106th Regiment Indoor Games – 106th Regiment Armory, Buffalo
Oh, you thought 16 seconds off a world record was too slow? Nurmi broke three marks in the 1¼-mile handicap in Buffalo. Winning by 75 yards, Nurmi set new marks at 2,000 yards, 2,000 meters and the 1-¼ mile.
It was another race in Buffalo that piqued interest, however. Willie Ritola, Nurmi’s fellow Finn, smashed Nurmi’s record in the 2 mile, running 9 minutes, 3.8 seconds. Ritola, it appeared, was the only person in the world who could run with the greatest.
Total Races: 16
Total W.R.: 22
February 13 – Syracuse University Games – Syracuse University Gymnasium, New York
Al Gotlieb, a Syracuse University star had been given a 65-yard head start in the mile against Nurmi. And with one lap to go, it seemed like the perfect distance. Nurmi caught up to and passed Gotlieb with one circuit left, and, with 100 meters to go, the Flying Finn let up, thinking he had vanquished his competitors. Gotlieb, however, found one more burst. He pulled away over the straightaway and held on for the handicap victory by 10 yards.
Total Races: 17
Total W.R.: 22
February 14 – N.Y.A.C. Games – Madison Square Garden, New York
When Roger Bannister eventually broke 4 minutes in the mile, the announcement was well-etched in history. The announcer, the story goes, explained that, with a winning time of 3 minutes—and the crowd went wild, drowning out the rest of the announcement.
When Madison Square Garden announcer Bill Rossbach stepped to the center of the arena to announce the final time of the 2-mile run at the N.Y.A.C. Games, it was reported that one could have heard a pin drop. Nurmi had set a blistering pace throughout his 22-lap race. The crowd knew it had seen something special. Rossbach announced that Nurmi’s winning time was 8 minutes—and because everyone was so shocked, he was able to finish the rest—58⅕ seconds, and the crowd erupted.
Nurmi became the first man to run under 9 minutes. He would eventually do it outdoors, too, in 1931.
Nurmi also broke his own record for 1¾ miles. It was almost certain that he would have broken records in the 3,000 yards and meters, too, but this apparently was the one race in which officials did not attempt to set more than two world records.
Total Races: 18
Total W.R.: 24
February 16 – Philadelphia College of Osteopathy Games – 103rd Cavalry Armory, Philadelphia
At some point, the people of 1925 needed to ask if they were going to count it as a world record if Nurmi ran from one city block to another. Because running on a dirt track in Philadelphia for two miles—a type of track which no marks had ever been listed as world records—Nurmi was given credit for three more records in the 1, 1¾, and 2 mile even though he ran 30 seconds slower than he had two nights prior.
Total Races: 19
Total W.R.: 27
February 21 – Georgetown University Games – Convention Hall, Washington, D.C.
Earlier in the day he met President Calvin Coolidge. When he walked onto the track he was greeted with cheers from senators and representatives. Then, he won the 3,000 yards in convincing fashion.
Total Races: 20
Total W.R.: 27
February 23 – Johns Hopkins Games – Fifth Regiment Armory, Baltimore
Of the seven runners who started with Nurmi, only four finished the 2 mile. Even when he wasn’t setting records, he was demoralizing his competition.
Total Races: 21
Total W.R.: 27
February 25 – Cathedral Benefit Games – Madison Square Garden, New York
Another day, another 2-mile win for Nurmi.
Total Races: 22
Total W.R.: 27
February 28 – A.A.U. National Championships – Louisville, Kentucky
Nurmi did not break any world records, but he became the first Finn to win a U.S. National Championship in the 2 mile.
Total Races: 23
Total W.R.: 27
March 2 – Athletic Carnival of 71st Regiment – 71st Regiment Armory, New York
A tie still counts as a world record, and running in New York after a week break to go to the A.A.U. Championships, Nurmi equaled the time he ran for 1½ miles at the Millrose Games over a month before.
Look below. From Jan 6 to March 2, Paavo Nurmi ran in 24 races. After all that time, he was still tying records. And he still wasn’t done.
Total Races: 24
Total W.R.: 28
March 4 – 106th Infantry Annual Meet – 106th Regiment Armory, Brooklyn
When Sergei Bubka set world records in the pole vault, much after Nurmi’s time in the limelight, he would set them incrementally, just barely passing the old mark by an inch or less so that he could continue to earn his world record bonuses. Nurmi might have had a similar idea.
Two days after matching one of his own world records, he re-set two of his own in the 1⅛ mile and the 2,000 yards.
Total Races: 25
Total W.R.: 30
It is here, dear reader, that I ask for you to forgive me. For, after 25 races and 30 world records, you might think that that is one heck of a campaign and one heck of a career for any runner. But that was simply the first string of meets for Paavo Nurmi in the United States.
Amazingly, he was only about halfway through.
And that is why I ask for forgiveness. For the boredom of describing the rest of the races run by Nurmi in his U.S. tour would be unforgiving. Instead, let’s cut to the chase.
He would lose his first scratch race on St. Patrick’s Day at the Knights of Columbus Meet at Madison Square Garden. Leading the 5,000 meters with four laps to go, Nurmi stopped abruptly. He was passed by Ritolo, and, for a moment, it looked like he was going to jump back into the race. Half a lap later, he had collapsed onto the infield. Still, he set world records at 2½ miles, 4,000 yards, and 4,000 meters. Even in defeat, Nurmi put on a show—and his stomach issues that kept him from finishing weren’t enough to keep him from running again two days later.
His tour extended north into Canada and west all the way to Los Angeles. By April, he was telling the press he was tired, yet he continued to race. He won his first outdoor race in April in Chicago. Over 35,000 watched Nurmi run the first lap of a mile in 60.2 seconds then fade to a 4 minute, 15 second finish at Harvard in May.
Then, in his final run on U.S. soil, Nurmi went down in distance to the 800 meters. He was defeated by Alan Helffrich at Yankee Stadium on May 26. Aside from the 5,000 meters he dropped out of, it was the only scratch race he lost. Helffrich became the only athlete to defeat Nurmi in a race he finished.
On May 28, Nurmi boarded a boat for home.
And that was it. The Flying Finn was gone.
Total Races: 55
Total W.R.: 38
Joie Ray did not retire after the 1925 season, either. No, instead he turned to the marathon and any other crazy thing he could compete in. In fact, he also turned to snowshoe racing, roller derby, and dance marathons—once two-stepping for 1,730 hours, according to his obituary. In 1928 he took third in the Boston Marathon and fifth in the Olympic Marathon.
Even after the 1928 Games, Ray never really retired. He continued running throughout his entire life. Working at a steel mill in Gary, Indiana, once he was done running competitively, he still found time to stay in shape. On his 70th birthday, he ran a mile in 6 minutes, 11.5 seconds. U.S.A.T.F. inducted Ray into its Hall of Fame in 1976, two years before he died.
It turned out, what may have tugged Ray back to the track in 1925 might not have been the pull of Paavo Nurmi.
Ray loved to run.
Nurmi did, too.
The 1925 tour left him exhausted, but he was back in 1926 and 1927, too. In 1928, Nurmi was not quite the world beater he had been in 1924, but he won gold in the 10,000 meters and added silvers in the 5,000 and 3,000-meter steeplechase in Amsterdam.
In 1932, Nurmi planned to run the marathon at the Los Angeles Olympics. Instead, the I.A.A.F. barred Nurmi from competing at the Games, claiming there was evidence he had taken money to run races in Germany.
Rumors of payment had persisted through Nurmi’s U.S. trip, too, but he was never found to make any wrongdoings according to the amateur code. In 1964, Nurmi visited the Times offices. When asked about payments, Nurmi, “dismissed such disparagement with a shy smile and a quick burst of Finnish to his interpreter, Matti Hakkanen, Finnish vice consul. ‘He said that there are bigger professionals in the Olympics now than there were at his time,’ said Hakkanen. ‘He would like to leave this topic because he doesn’t like it. This pro‐amateur business always is in existence.’”
No matter the amateur status, Nurmi’s legend remains. His tour may be forgotten in the U.S., but he is well remembered in Finland. Near the Sports Museum of Finland in Helsinki, there’s a statue of a naked Nurmi, running.
Nurmi died in Finland October 2, 1973, at 76. His Times obituary was on the paper’s October 3 front page. His medals and wins were noted. So was the 1925 tour of the U.S. In the obituary, he was reported to have run 68 races and broken 11 world records.
For this piece, I rifled through hundreds of newspaper reports, and failed to discover the 68 races Nurmi ran. While the 58 I discovered might not be the exact number, the 38 world records is sure to be inexact, especially if we’re counting dirt track world records.
No matter the amount of races he ran or the number of records he broke, for all he did in four months on U.S. soil, the Nurmi tour was astounding.