On January 6, 1925, Finnish long-distance runner Paavo Nurmi steps up to the starting line in New York’s Madison Square Garden in his first U.S. appearance. Anticipation for the moment had been building steadily since Nurmi’s arrival in America four weeks before, and it was standing room only at the Garden when he emerged out of the cigar smoke to run his first race.
Known as the “Flying Finn,” Nurmi was regarded as the greatest runner of his day. At the 1924 Olympics in Paris, he won five gold medals, including two Olympic-record runs in the space of an hour on July 10. He often ran with a stopwatch in his hand to pace himself, an innovation he developed. Although the technique was not widely imitated, it was not until 1931 that a runner broke the outdoor-mile world record, which Nurmi set using this strategy.
Organizers of his first U.S. appearance hoped for a repeat of his achievements in Paris and planned his first two races, the mile and 5,000 meters, to be likewise run within an hour. In the mile race, two American competitors took an early lead, but Nurmi caught them and pulled ahead, setting a new indoor world record of 4:13.5. In the 5,000-meter race, he was challenged by fellow Finn Ville Ritola, but in the last few hundred meters Nurmi sprinted to the finish line for another indoor world record, 14:44.6.
After his spectacular American debut, Nurmi received invitations to appear across the United States, and he eventually ran a total of 55 races before returning home. Of these 55, he lost only his last race, a half-mile sprint against American Alan Helffrich in New York’s Yankee Stadium. Some newspapers speculated that he had lost only out of politeness to his hosts.
Both of Nurmi’s 5,000-meter records have since been broken.