90-year-old hurdler from Salo is a world record athlete
Veteran athletes manage a smile while training
By Riitta Koivuranta in Salo
It is an early Tuesday morning in Salohalli. Somewhere around here I'm supposed to be finding a Finnish world record runner.
The sports hall, which is located in Southwest Finland's “home of Nokia”, still appears far from packed, so it should not present too much of a challenge.
The volleyballers are already on the scene. On another court a bunch of schoolchildren are making a racket, while from the basement below comes the sound of bowlers toppling pins. Otherwise, the hall is empty.
I peek into the gym, where there appears to be something of a commotion stirring.
The weekly veterans' fitness group meets today, and around ten regulars have shown up.
But none of them owns up to breaking any world records.
Then it starts to happen. A grey-haired man in a blue-white tracksuit, the Finnish flag sewn onto the front of his jacket, appears on the indoor track.
There he is, Salo's very own Ilmari Koppinen, 90-year-old veteran athlete and world record-breaking hurdler.
Koppinen cannot be accused of lacking a sense of occasion: when the town of Salo held an athletics competition in celebration of their native sporting son, he honoured the event by setting a new 60-metre hurdles world record of 18.42 seconds. On his birthday.
A week later, Koppinen took the opportunity provided by the Finnish Championships to smash that record, covering the distance in a mere 17.56 seconds.
"The situation is unique in the sense that there are no statistics for this distance, because no-one else in my age-group has ever run the hurdles”, Koppinen explains.
Koppinen's knees are perhaps starting to show the strains of ninety years on the road, but they still manage to get him over the barriers briskly enough.
"The hips are in fine shape, practically good as new. I had them looked at. They are what keep me going. The technique and flexibility have just stayed with me. I can almost manage the splits", he beams.
Few veteran-aged athletes can claim the same. In Koppinen's view, the explanation for his excellent condition and health boils down to good genes, an abstinent lifestyle, and a long career as an ordnance surveyor.
"As a surveyor, I had to run around quite a bit in the forest. That's what has kept me supple."
"I haven't suffered any major accidents, either, though I've had my share of near-misses. During the war, I was almost on the receiving end of a shower of bullets. They flew past me into a nearby tree, barely missing me - I'm lucky to be alive", recounts Koppinen.
Koppinen is a versatile athlete. Not content with the hurdles, he competes in track events without obstacles, in the long jump, the high jump, the triple jump, and the 3000-metre walk.
As recently as five years ago, the four-time Nordic athletics champion was still competing in the pole vault.
A member of Southwest Finland's veteran athletes' Salo area subdivison, Koppinen has managed to amass one of the largest medal collections among his fellow veterans. Last year, he added 13 Finnish Championship medals of varying colours to his haul.
"Whenever he comes home from a competition, we always tell Ilmari that he ought to pack his winnings a bit more carefully since the car looks like it's going to tip over", laughs 71-year-old clubmate Lauri Saari, who only took up running marathons ten years ago.
Veteran athletes' activities are in full swing in Salo. The town offers the old-timers the premises for competition and training free of charge.
Few pass up the opportunity, and there always seem to be more than enough willing to sign up for national competitions.
Although a few of these go on to test their skills at the level of the World, European and Nordic Championships, competition is not what is at stake.
Athletes do not come to Salohalli to train aggressively, but rather to take some exercise in good company. The competitions are just the icing on the cake.
"I would hardly bother coming if this were just about the competition. This place is like a drug, somewhere you want to come to every Tuesday and Thursday. There's such a great atmosphere in this group", says Ermo Kalevo, 70 years young.
Kalevo explains that he only began to exercise when he quit smoking at the age of 35.
“At that time, jogging was still quite a new phenomenon. Friends asked my wife how she could be bothered washing my sweaty clothes. She responded that she would far sooner wash them than starch a white-collared shirt.”
Kalevo and Koppinen were in Iceland in January to participate in the Nordic Indoor Championships, where Finland's veterans managed to collect no fewer than 134 medals. Koppinen set new world records in the high jump (0.94 metres) and the long jump (2.46 metres).
Koppinen himself admits that it feels a bit strange to be a world record athlete in his nineties. It is not something he would have imagined when he was younger.
As he exits the sports hall up the stairs, he does so in style, bounding up two steps at a time.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 28.3.2008
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FACTFILE: Veterans' athletics proves popular
RIITTA KOIVURANTA / Helsingin Sanomat