MARQUETTE – No, he hasn’t come back from the dead. In fact, he isn’t even a runner. The Upper Peninsula’s own Paavo Nurmi, a 68-year old retired metal worker from Detroit, will lead the Finn Grand Fest 2005 five- and 10-kilometer races Saturday, Aug.13, at Mattson Lower Harbor Park in remembrance of the Finnish runner who shares his name.
The original Paavo Nurmi led Finland to nine gold-medal victories in the Olympic Games from 1920 to 1928 and was considered a national hero. In 1932, Nurmi was barred from running in the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles because he had accepted money for his running and was branded a professional. He did not return to the Olympics until 1952, when he was chosen to light the Olympic flame.
Coincidentally, the Paavo Nurmi that now lives in the U.P. was also at the 1952 Olympics.
“They needed guides and helpers who had some language skills and I’d had two years of the English language, so I was chosen to help, and I got to see the original Paavo Nurmi light the torch. I was 18 years old at that time,” said Nurmi, who is also originally from Finland.
Nurmi and his family were displaced from their home during World War II and immigrated to Detroit because Nurmi’s father had relatives there. “He knew that there would be a better life for us in the United States, so he immigrated first and sent for us later,” said Nurmi.
During his youth, Nurmi preferred gymnastics instead of running, but his doctors were concerned about his height. “They told me that if I quit gymnastics for a year, I would grow. I decided to quit altogether, and the first year after I quit, I grew five inches.”
As an adult, Nurmi took on a job as a tool maker. He and his wife purchased a cottage in St. Ignace, which they permanently relocated to after his retirement six years ago.
Even though the original Paavo Nurmi was famous more than 80 years ago, Nurmi is still asked if he’s related to him.
“No matter where I go, people always recognize the name and ask if we’re related. We’re not; my parents didn’t even know who Paavo Nurmi was when they named me. It was just a name that they chose, and now I’m famous because of it,” Nurmi joked. His son, Paavo Jr., is a doctor and also frequently asked about his name. There is also a Paavo III, who is a recent addition to the family.
Paavo Nurmi might have left Detroit behind, but his name was not forgotten. A woman he had known there happened to be in attendance at a Finn Grand Fest meeting in the U.P. when the name “Paavo Nurmi” was mentioned. She remembered knowing someone by that name, and Nurmi was contacted and asked to lead the races.
“I was surprised to be asked, and I almost wasn’t able to do it because I have a bad knee. But it’s better now, so I’m pretty sure I’ll make it,” he said. Nurmi’s son, daughter-in-law and son-in-law will also be participating in the 5K race.
“I’ve been to many Finn Fests, and I’m very excited for this one. My wife and I have a hotel reservation for the entire week to make sure that we don’t miss anything,” he said.