Learn about Life in the 1920s

Scandinavia's Speed Mission

PAAVO NURMI of Finland and Edvin Wide of Sweden are with us for the indoor track season once more.

They are old friends and old favorites, but it is likely that their campaigns this time will differ considerably in plan, since the Finn is admittedly out for more records and Wide has announced that his own running will be subsidiary to his government mission as a student of the American school system. So we shall hear and see a great deal more of the artisan from Abo than the school teacher from Stockholm. Yet there is a rivalry of such long standing between them, rooted as it is in nationalism, that they will certainly come together on an American board track. It took years of persistent effort and pursuit for the Swede to catch up with and finally pass the Finn, only to be repassed in the latest Olympics at Amsterdam. There is no doubt that it will take more than the events in Holland to convince Wide of his permanent inferiority.

Just what this country can do in the way of meeting this invasion is a problem; with the solution not in sight. Joie Ray has turned professional, and with the possible exception of Leo Lermond, there seems to be no American runner on the horizon who can hope to make anything like a showing against these two machine-like runners, at any distance above the mile, which is probably the shortest the two will undertake. Both men have been exceedingly cautious this time to avoid any appearance of barnstorming for a price, and have been guaranteed amateurs by their own countries and by the Amateur Athletic Union of this country. With prior experience as a guide, neither is likely to run into troubles such as beset the Finn on his last appearance, or Charlie Hoff of Norway. They are now, as a result of their registration, beyond the control of the foreign relations committee of the A.A.U., and what running they do will be undertaken as bona fide members of American organizations.

Granting these runners a fairly clean if perhaps not an entirely clean sweep of American board tracks, the principal interest in their performances will be a study of their styles in action. Both undoubtedly have something to teach us, if we will only learn. We have been slow to learn so far for the simple rea son that for so long a time there was a wholly unjustified feeling that we knew all there was to be known about the scientific side of running. Well .do I remember the comment of American coaches back in the days of the Olympics at Antwerp when Nurmi and others of the Scandinavians were raising so much havoc in the distance events, all the way up to and including the Marathon. Our coaches had already had a taste of what was to come as a result of previous experiences with the Kolehmainens, but still apparently were not convinced. So when a string of Scandinavian victories began to come along with great regularity there should have been little reason for surprise. However, one of the best of our coaches, watching the Swedish stars, remarked: "What is the matter with Ernie Hjertberg (who had been coaching in Sweden) ? These men of his are dead from the waist up. They do not fight their way with their arms."

True enough, this comment, but the Scandinavians had learned a better method. They had substituted for the old theory that a distance man was as good as his legs the idea that a distance man was as good as his "engine room," in other words his heart and his lungs. The widely held and fairly rigid arms of these runners opened out the chest and gave the heart and lungs all the room they need in which to work. It seemed a better plan to push along with the legs under well-regulated power, than to claw along with the arms with the, power partly shut-down owing to the swinging arms across the chest. Not that the Northmen had neglected their legs by any means. They had a better leg, and above all a better hip action, than any American distance man since perhaps the days of George Bonhag.

Image of two Scandinavian runners There have been exceptions to this procedure, to be sure. When Wide first came here he was criticized by the hasty for apparently shortening his stride and pounding along with the front leg. As a matter of fact he was saving his energy. He ran, much as does Nurmi, with the upper leg, and a considerable hip motion that helped pull him along until such time as he elected to settle down and stretch out, using push with back leg as well as pull with the front leg. This lengthening out and settling to the track usually resulted, even on the many-lap tracks of the indoor arenas, in a sustained spurt that no American runner could match.

Perhaps the best description of the Scandinavian style of running was that given me by John Magee, one of the Olympic coaches, and athletic director at Bowdoin College. "You've watched a trotter, haven't you ?" he asked. "And you've watched a pacer. Well, the stride of these men is something of a cross between the two." You have noticed of course that the chest is open. Well, the human engine is working at its best, driving along the body by the use of the powerful muscles of the upper leg."

Yet with the Scandinavian victories piling up, and with their style of running on exhibition for years, little progress was made in developing a true copyist. Perhaps the nearest to it was the style of Tibbetts of Harvard, a few years ago, but of course Tibbetts did not have the years of running, the actual mileage, behind him that Nurmi and Wide had. Memory harks back to early days of Jack Moakley at Cornell, when this able little coach was planting cross-country running at Ithaca. Needless to say, it was before the days of the automobile. His first notable development was Warren Schutt, a bigger man physically than either Nurmi or Wide. Schutt, like the Northmen walked or ran, usually ran, whither he wanted to go. It was three miles from the farm to the college on the hill, an afternoon session cross-country or on the track, and three miles home to dinner and the chores. To such a man Moakley could teach a style that was a real distance-eater.

So if American boys are to learn anything from the Finn and the Swede they must also be willing to learn something from the experience of Warren Schutt. It is something on the lines of the experience of the man who bet he could drink a pail of—oh yes, beer—at a single draught, and then excused himself for a moment. When he returned he promptly won his bet. "How," he was asked, "did you drink that much beer ?" "Oh," was the prompt reply, "I just stepped outside and did it." That is the way an athlete learns to run a mile, or two miles, or ten miles, or twenty-five miles.

Source: Outlook & Independent for January 30, 1929