HISTORY OF FINNISH CHAMPIONS AT THE BOSTON MARATHON

Written by Ossi Peltoniemi (translated from Finnish)


Over the decades, the Finns have raced well at the Boston Marathon and 2022 marks the 50th anniversary since the last Finn won the Monday marathon. If you scour the results, you can find a large number of Finnish runners listed in the top pages. The Finns have won in Boston a total of seven times and two more names could have been added to the list, but the victors changed their citizenship prior to breaking the tape. The earliest winners from Finland were immigrants Carl Linder and Taavi “Dave” Komonen. Linder moved to the United States in 1893 with his parents at the age of four and would go on to win the Boston Marathon in 1919. Komonen, changed his citizenship to Canadian, but later returned to Finland. Komonen tried to win in 1933, but had to bow to the overwhelming Leslie Pawson. Poor and unemployed, the shoemaker Komonen had to sell his shoes for $4 after the race to get home. However, he would return to Boston the following year and win the race with his self-made deerskin shoes. The victory in Boston was a straightforward miracle, as Komonen had been starving for years before winning the big race.

Juoksu
Karhu FI

FINNISH WOMEN CLOSE TO VICTORY 

The women were officially eligible to run the Boston Marathon in 1972, the same year that the Finn Suomalainen took first place in the men’s race. However, Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer ran unofficially among the men prior to 1972.  A Finnish woman has never won the Boston Marathon, but it has been close. Tuija Toivonen (Jousimaa) was fourth in 1984 and second in 1988 with a time of 2:29:26. 1988 proved a successful year for the Finnish women, as there were six Finnish women among the top 15 female finishers. Sinikka Keskitalo has also been close to finishing atop the podium by placing fifth in 1986 and 1987.

ONE OF THE BEST FINNISH MARATHONERS OF ALL TIME: VEIKKO KARVONEN 

The most successful of the Finnish marathoners that have won Boston is Veikko Karvonen (1954). During his career, Karvonen won an Olympic bronze (Melbourne, 1956), a European Championship gold (Bern, 1954), and a European Championship silver (Brussels, 1950). In addition to Boston, Karvonen won the Fukuoka Marathon in 1955. As early as 1953, Karvonen was close to victory in Boston, placing second. The loss annoyed Karvonen, so he intensified his training for the next year's marathon. At the 1954 Boston Marathon, the postman Karvonen was superior, beating the world record holder, Jim Peters, who fainted at the finish, by more than two minutes. Finnish runner Erkki Puolakka placed third in the same competition. In 1957, Karvonen was close to another victory, but ultimately finished second.

OUT OF APPRECIATION FOR BOSTON, KARVONEN RETURNED IN 1959 AND RAN HIS LAST ACTIVE RACE, CROSSING THE LINE IN 4TH PLACE.

 CHAMPION OF THE “SHORT COURSE”: ANTTI VISKARI 

Army Sergeant Antti Viskari is responsible for the fastest time ever run by a Finn at Boston. At the 1956 Boston Marathon, Viskari won in a time of 2:14:14. The future three-time winner of the Boston Marathon, Eino Oksanen, finished third in the same race. After the run, the race organizers re-measured the route and found it to be 1,183 yards (1.1km) too short. Even on the full course, Viskar's pace would have been a world record pace. What is special about Viskari's career is that he won the Boston Marathon, but never won the Finnish marathon championship.

THREE-TIME CHAMPION: EINO OKSANEN 

The most successful Finn in the history of the Boston Marathon is Eino Oksanen. A former skier, Oksanen won the Boston Marathon three times (1959, 1961, and 1962), an accomplishment no other European man has achieved. Oksanen also ran at the Olympics three times with his best performance being 10th place in Melbourne. In 1962, the Finns grabbed a double victory with Paavo Pystynen finishing second to Oksanen’s win. Trips to the Boston Marathon usually lasted just over a month, which allowed the athletes to focus solely on training without any other pressure. Over the years, Finnish marathoners received support and accommodations from American Finns in the Boston area.

 

In his homeland, Oksanen worked as a police officer and happened to be at the scene when an apprehended criminal ran away from police. Oksanen followed patiently and reached the man after a few kilometers of running. Oksanen ran up alongside the man and asked, "How long are you going to run because you have to run back the same way!?" The man stopped and the duo left peacefully to the police station.

A SYNONYM FOR “SISU”: PAAVO KOTILA 

The 1960 winner Paavo Kotila punched his ticket to Boston in a special way. He had won a qualifier of 2 x 15,000 meters, which was run in Finland on a 168-meter indoor track. The recovery between runs was only 20 minutes. At the Boston Marathon, Kotila's tactics were fierce. Kotila, who ran his first marathon at Boston in 1955, pushed hard at the beginning of the race, which caused problems for him later on in Newton's hills. Fatigued from his earlier efforts, Kotila had to walk a few meters late in the race, but the gap he held over the other runners was so great, they could not reach him.

Considered one of the most courageous Finnish runners, Kotila would often run close to the point of going unconscious. This strategy didn’t always help him. Earlier in his career, at the Melbourne Olympics, Kotila passed out in the heat and finished 13th, to the disappointment of the Finns. Nevertheless, four years later at Boston, the risk paid off and Kotila won the marathon by a fair margin over Gordon McKenzie of USA.

 THE LAST CHAMPION: OLAVI SUOMALAINEN 

This year marks 50 years since the last Finnish victory at the Boston Marathon. In 1972, Olavi Suomalainen ran smartly and broke Mexican runner Jacinto Sabinal about ten kilometers before the finish. In the last ten kilometers, Suomalainen passed his rivals to finish in 2:15:39. Colombian marathoner, Victor Mora, ran well over the final stages, finishing 18 seconds after the Finn. The winning time was a personal best for Suomalainen, but it was not enough for him to be selected to run in Munich Olympics. The following year, the Finn returned to Boston and finished third. After Olavi Suomalainen’s victory, no other Finn has won the Boston Marathon.

1978 was the last time a Finn finished in the top 3 at the Boston Marathon. It was in that year that Esa Tikkanen ran an unofficial Finnish record of 2:11:15. Hopefully, in due time, new names will emerge for Finland to add to this glorious list of Boston Marathon runners. I promise that I won’t add my name to the list, as l start 30 minutes after the elites, so it will be too hard to catch up. Even for a Finn…

THE OFFICIAL FINNISH WINNERS ARE:

  • Veikko Karvonen 2:20:39 (1954)
  • Antti Viskari 2:14:14 (1956)
  • Eino Oksanen 2:22:42, 2:23:29, 2:23:48 (1959, 1961, 1962)
  • Paavo Kotila 2:20:54 (1960)
  • Olavi Suomalainen 2:15:39 (1972)

Karhu FI

BLOG CREDITS 

Ossi Peltoniemi / @ossipeltoniemi.  A history teacher and long-distance runner from Rovaniemi, Lapland (Finland). Ossi will be running his first Boston Marathon on Monday April 18th.