More than 30 years after he won the first of his four Olympic gold medals, Lasse Viren remains an integral part of Finnish lore. One of his native country’s 200 members of parliament, Viren, 57, lives with his wife and two of his three sons in Myrskala, a country city with a population of 2,000 about one hour Northeast of Helsinki.
The winner of an unequaled double in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in the 1972 (Munich) and 1976 Olympics (Montreal), Viren was hit by a car while training at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. He’s recovered from the surgery he had 2 1/2 years ago to final repair the remnants of the muscle damage suffered in the mishap.
Tanned and still wearing a neatly trimmed beard and short-cropped hair (both have turned predominately gray), Viren runs for fitness and remains within 10 pounds of his competitive weight.
I interviewed Viren four years ago this month during a trip to Finland to run the Helsinki City Marathon. Viren was cordial. We had coffee in a window-dominated cafe overlooking a summer and winter sports retreat. Dryland ski jumps and lush green football stadium dominated the backdrop.
Here’s part of my interview:
James Raia: There have been many accusations through the years by those skeptical of your success in the Olympics. All these years later, how do you answer the question regarding blood-doping?
Lasse Viren: I know what happened and what I did or didn’t take. They (the media) always want to know about the big games and why, why, why (he won). I have no problems answering the question. I trained many times at high altitude. High altitude training started at that time. People did not what was happening or who was coming up, but it’s not a problem for me when people ask.
Raia: But all these years laters, people still ask and wonder if you doped?
Viren: I say every time, no. I didn’t take blood.
Raia: It’s been some 30 years since the Israeli athletes were killed in Munch. Can you tell me if it affected you and what how you think about it now?
Viren: I don’t think too much about what happened 30 years ago. But now some newspapers and radio people have asked me about it. I say I don’t think too much about it, although last weekend the European Championship Marathon was in Munich, so my feelings have come up a little and I ask why it happened.
Raia: What were your feelings in Munich at the time?
Viren: The whole time I was thinking about my own event. What happened after the Israeli people were killed is that there was a meeting and they changed the program by one day. It was one day later and it was good for me. It was one more day of rest, and, of course, that part was good for me. But for me, I’m was ready with one for day of rest or if it was held on a normal day.
Raia: It was reported many years ago that you offered your gold medals for sale. Can you comment on that?
Viren: It started as a joke in the Finnish newspapers when they asked how much it took to earn one gold medal from the federation and sponsors. One medal was worth maybe $200,000 at the time. So, I told them I would sell them for the same price (laughing). Who wants to pay? But I don’t know what happened. No one came to me and I kept the medals.
Raia: So you still have your (gold) medals?
Viren: Yes, I have them in my home. People only spoke about buying them.
Raia: So, you have four gold medals. That would be $800,000. If someone offered now to buy them, would you sell?
Viren: (Laughing) I don’t know. Maybe. Why not?
Raia: In your prime, you had a resting heart rate of 32. Is that right and do you know what it is today?
Viren: Yes, but I don’t know what it is today. I only do fun runs. Last winter, I had some problems, and I had to have an operation and after that for six months, I didn’t run or only very, very little. But after six weeks, I walked with the walking sticks. Then the doctor said last May that if run, I could run very, very slow. And after six months, he said it was OK.
Raia: When did you discover you had the problem?
Viren: Last September, it became difficult to run. Sometimes, it was OK to run 10 kilometers, sometimes it hurt after only one or two kilometers. I don’t know in medical words (chuckling), but it was very, very bad.
Raia: Do you look at the newspapers results and see what guys are running these days. In other words, are you a fan?
Viren: I look, but in the big meets and in the Olympics these days, they don’t run fast. They only run fast in “rabbit” runs. But the big events and the rabbit runs, it’s not the same.
Raia: Some elite athletes when they get older like to compete in masters or seniors divisions. Do you have any aspirations to do that?
Viren: I have no interest in that. I think some people who want to compete in later age because they were not active at a younger age. They started working and do sports later. So now if they want to do training and competing, it’s OK. It’s good, but sometimes I think they take it very hard and they are not smiling.That’s the only point I would make, and I don’t understand they would take it so seriously, but to compete is to compete.
Raia: How often do you run these days?
Viren: I don’t run any programs (workout schedules) anymore. Maybe some days, I run everyday, but maybe sometimes two or three weeks, I run nothing. It’s just for fun. When I want to go, I go and that’s OK. It’s for a half-hour, and hour sometimes. But my condition is not good now, but sometimes I think . . .
THE VIREN FILE
Date of Birth — Friday, July 22, 1949.
Place of Birth — Helsinki, Finland.
Championship Performances — Olympics (1972) Gold medalist, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters; Olympics (1976) Gold medalist, 5000 meters, 10,000 meters.