Lasse Viren and the reindeer milk diet

  • Fame is being on a Mongolian stamp…
    Viren stamp

Let’s talk Viren:  Lasse Viren is an otherwise unheralded runner who has basically never won a single major race… except for the Olympic 5,000 and 10,000 races… in back to back Olympics…  This makes him a fairly controversial/polarizing figure, because, while some people point to his being able to have his best performances when it matters most, others think there is another reason he did very well, very rarely (hint, it rhymes with “Blood Doping”.  Wait, it doesn’t rhyme with that, it just is that.)

Let’s review:

  • Viren came 7th and 17th in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the 1971 European Championships in Helsinki
  • He then started training in Kenya, qualifyin for the 1972 Olympics
  • In the 1972 10,000 meter final, he fully tripped and rolled onto the infield (1:45 of that clip), got up, chased down the pack, and won in a world record time. 
  • A week later, he chased down Steve Prefontaine (among others) to win gold in the 5,000
    • Fun fact!  My movie debut involved this scene.  For Prefontaine, they filmed the “Munich” scenes at Husky Stadium in Seattle, and invited extras to come sit in the stands, eat free hot dogs and soda, and cheer as the actors ran the last lap of the race over and over again
      • N.B. 1: this is the less good of the two Prefontaine biopics that came out basically simultaneously – if you see one, see Without Limits
      • N.B. 2:  I was probably about 10 years old, and as a kid who wore “husky” jeans, I was pretty susceptible to the promise of free hot dogs
  • Let’s save the rest of my Prefontaine thoughts for another time… it’s complicated…fine I’ll come out with them
    • He was a very good runner, but a lot of his “I don’t have talent but I’ve got heart” schtick runs a bit dry with me.  He was really good, but he also had otherworldly physical gifts (off the charts VO2 max of 84.4 – Kenny Moore referred to Prefontaine as having “lungs like bellows”, and he (Moore) has this great set piece in multiple articles where he juxtaposes those lungs with the image of them being crushed by Pre’s car – in this sort of Greek Tragedy way where the hero’s greatest gift is the lynchpin to his downfall).
    • Speaking of gifts, you know that famous poster that says “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift”—Steve Prefontaine (see below if not)?  Well how about this quote:  “there is always a sanctuary more, a door that can never be forced, whatever the force, a last inviolable stronghold that can never be taken, whatever the attack; your vote can be taken, your name, your innards, even your life, but that last stronghold can only be surrendered. And to surrender it for any reason other than love is to surrender love.”  Well, they sound pretty similar, right?  What if I told you the 2nd quote comes from the book “Sometimes a Great Notion”, written in 1964, and which takes place in a fictionalized version of Prefontaine’s hometown of Coos Bay, Oregon?  I’m just saying – I think Prefontaine knows a good quote when he hears one, and borrwed it accordingly.
    • Also, the dude could run – for sure.   I’m just saying, he was a very good runner, but let’s not turn him into Jesus Christ.
  • Right, back to Viren.  So it’s 1972, he wins the double, does a few other good races… and basically disappears for four years.
  • So now it’s 1976 (note: Most sovereign African nations boycotted the Montreal Olympics after the IOC refused to ban New Zealand, who had recently played rugby in Apartheid South Africa), and Viren wins the 10,000, then wins the 5,000 by basically sprinting the last mile (his time over the last 1500 would have placed him 8th in that race alone).  As an encore, he entered the Marathon the very next day.  What?!  He ran a 2:13.
  • What’s funny, if you watch the 1976 race clips on youtube, is that the announcers were discussing blood doping during the races he was winning.  Such controversy is not new in sports.  This type of early accusation returned after Taoufik Makhloufi won the Olympics 1,500 in London – he hadn’t even crossed the line, and people were already mentioning it.  Kenny Moore, who I don’t think ever raced Viren directly (having run the Olympic Marathon in 1968 and 1972, but not 1976) wrote about the controversy in 1977, back when “writing about a potential blood doper” meant “Going to visit him at his home in Finland”.  It’s a nice article.  Viren attributes his success to “reindeer milk”, and thus the title of the post.
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