FRIDAY NIGHT: Jukka Keskisalo storms to surprise European gold in 3000 metres steeplechase
The death of Finnish long-distance running may have been exaggerated
By William Moore
A few days ago, on Thursday to be precise, this paper wrote the following:
Barring unforeseen upsets, it looks as if [Tero] Pitkämäki's javelin silver will be the only hardware brought back from Gothenburg 2006 by the Finnish team, but hope springs eternal and the games continue until Sunday.
This just goes to prove that prediction is difficult, especially when it concerns the future - and apparently also when it involves Finnish long-distance running, which has long been thought to be more or less extinct.
Apparently nobody forwarded the news of its demise to Jukka Keskisalo, the new European Champion in the men's 3,000 metres steeplechase.
What? A Finn?! A Finnish gold medallist on the track?!
Keskisalo is the first-ever Finnish winner of the 3,000 metres steeplechase at this level, and the first Finnish man to win a European title on the running track since 1978, when Martti Vainio took the 10,000 metres crown.
Since then, to be fair, there have been walkers who triumphed (Reima Salonen at 50 km in 1982 and Sari Essayah in the 10km women's event in front of a home crowd in 1994), and in the Munich rain four years ago Janne Holmén came out of nowhere and sandbagged everyone by winning the marathon.
But in the stadium itself, the very idea of a Finnish athlete taking gold - unless it was by throwing something - was so far-fetched that you could probably have won a small fortune with a timely wager on Mr. Keskisalo.
And yet, his was no lucky win. The 25-year-old ran an extraordinarily intelligent tactical race. He took full advantage of a slow early pace (the first kilometre was run in nearly 3 minutes, and New Orleans funeral processions have been brisker), staying out of trouble at the rear of a bunched field until he started to make tracks towards the front with around 500 metres to go.
Keskisalo was really motoring by this stage, and one by one he picked off the opposition, often overtaking other runners in the air as they tired while he kept his fluent hurdling rhythm.
By the middle of the back straight the Finnish television commentators were already in fortissimo mode, having sensed a massive upset might be in the offing. Keskisalo eased into medals contention 200 metres out and still looked to be going effortlessly, despite what had now become a fierce pace.
Taking the water-jump for the last time, Keskisalo kicked for home and immediately left the highly-fancied Spanish front-runner José Luis Blanco two or three metres in his wake.
Only at this point did the slightest hint of strain begin to show, but as Blanco fought to get back on terms down the straight it was clear that Keskisalo had timed things to perfection: over the last jump he accelerated away as the Spaniard faltered, and he stretched out to win comfortably in 8.24.89.
Blanco hung on for silver in 8:26.22. The bronze medal went to Bouabdellah Tahri of France.
Finland's illustrious history of producing distance-runners - the names of Hannes Kolehmainen, Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, and more recently quadruple Olympic gold medallist Lasse Viren (in 1972 and 1976) come to mind - was beginning to become a millstone around the national neck. It was all in the dim and distant past.
Things were not helped by the doping case involving Martti Vainio - the heir apparent to the Viren legacy - at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. He was stripped of his silver medal, and Finnish long-distance running took a big hit.
Janne Holmén's shock victory in Munich in 2002 was seen as the first hopeful sign of a change, but since then there has once again been little for home audiences to cheer about.
Keskisalo's achievement is if anything even more remarkable than Holmén's. The runner from Joensuu has been plagued by injuries for two years, and his previous best performance was 9th in this event at the 2003 World Championships in Paris.
On paper, there were any number of classier names in the field, but none of them had the necessary smarts when it came to the race itself. It had been anticipated that the strong trio of Spanish athletes, holding the fastest times this year between them, would take the event by the scruff of the neck and decide the tactics and the medals.
However, they never got their act together, and the leisurely first two kilometres - with nobody willing to break up the pack before a brave, doomed effort by Swede Mohammed Mustafa three laps from home - provided Keskisalo with a golden opportunity. He exploited it with great coolness and grit, clocking less than a minute for his blistering last lap. Lasse Viren, another master tactician, must have been proud.
After the race, and after kissing the track, Keskisalo searched around desperately for a Finnish flag to wave, but initially could come up with nothing better than a paper one about the size of a mini-handkerchief.
Eventually he was provided with the real deal in which to drape himself, and he further delighted the crowd by hopping over a few extra obstacles - set up for the women's 100 metres hurdles - on his lap of honour.
The newly-crowned champion seemed almost as stunned by what he had done as everyone else was, and claimed that he only believed he might win around 20 metres before the line.
He did admit, however that his plans - made last autumn - had called for him to be "in with a shout" at the bell, and that if this somehow came to pass, he felt he had a chance at a medal. As it turned out, he did a good deal better than that.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Tero Pitkämäki wins javelin silver in Gothenburg (10.8.2006)
European Athletics Championships, Gothenburg