Jim Hines. I never saw Jim Hines run, but when I was a kid, he was one of the sprinters I knew by name because that Jim Hines held the 100 meter world record. His 9.95 was the ultimate goal the others were chasing. One of them was my favorite sprinter, Valeri Borzov, of Soviet Union. He was also the great, white hope of the sport at the time, especially after he won the Olympic gold in 1972.
He must have become the Pakarinen household favorite a year earlier, though, in 1971, when he won both the 100 meter race and the 200 meter race at the European Championships held in Helsinki. I remember watching Borzov at the 1976 Olympics, in Montreal, and my father admiring the thighs on the Ukrainian.
Four years later, we were glued to the TV, admiring Eric Heiden’s muscular speed skating thighs as he won five gold medals at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.
Borzov didn’t win in Montreal, though. He ran as fast as four years earlier, 10.14, but the world had been moving faster. Those thighs still got him to the bronze medals, though. “He was probably too old, anyway,” Dad said. Borzov was 26. Dad was thirty.
By the 1980 Olympics, I had a new sprinter favorite, and he was European, too. The slender Italian was a little skinnier and a little shorter than Borzov, but he was a fine 100 meter sprinter, and even better on the 200. But best of all, whenever he won the race, he’d cross the finish line with his index finger in the air. He was number one. His name was Pietro Mennea.
He was also the world record holder in the 200-meter final in Moscow, his finest moment – which I never saw because we were on our way to a wedding, so we listened to the race on our car stereo.
Mennea got a poor start to the race, and the Finnish commentator didn’t give him any chance halfway through the race, which made me and my father angry. The race wasn’t over. But there was no time to start commenting on the commentators, so we didn’t say anything, and instead, just listened intently. Dad was driving, as usual, since Mom didn’t a driver’s license. I was on my knees, between the two front seats so I could hear better.
“Mennea is losing ground,” said the commentators.
“Mennea is losing ground, Mennea can’t keep up,” he said, and then, two seconds later:
“Mennea wins the gold medal!”
That became a joke in our family. “Mennea’s losing, Mennea’s losing … Mennea wins!” we’d say whenever something was a little silly.
In 1988, I had moved out of my childhood home, and was living in a tiny apartment in a hotel-turned-dorm in Helsinki. Also, the Olympics were late in the year, and didn’t start until the middle of September, so while I had been back to my old hometown for the summer, I was back in Helsinki for the 100 meter final.
That time, the world record holder was a Canadian named Ben Johnson. He had also been the pretty face in milk advertisements in Finland, but that didn’t impress me much, since I was in the other camp, the Carl Lewis camp.
The time difference between Seoul and Helsinki was seven hours so the 100 meter race was broadcast in the middle of the night in Finland. I was going to watch it, so I had made sure I had lots of dark bread and an uncomfortable chair* to keep me awake until 4 am.
Around midnight, my phone rang. It was my cousin, calling from a bar. He had just turned 18.
“Hey, what are you doing?” he asked me.
“Not much. Watching the Olympics.”
“Hey, what are you doing? Can I come over?”
“Sure, I’m really not doing anything, just watching the Olympics.”
“OK, great, see, been out a little late so don’t wanna bother my folks, so I’ll just come over to your place … if you’re not doing anything,” Cousin said.
I told him it was fine, and he said he’d take the next train, and would be at my place in an hour. An hour later, he called me again.
“Hey, what’s up? What are you doing?”
“Still watching the Olympics,” I said. “Sort of waiting for you.”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m on my way. Something came up here, but I’ll be on the next train,” he said.
I made another sandwich, and got really uncomfortable in my chair. The 100-meter final was still a couple of hours away.
Cousin called me 45 minutes later, and told he’d be on the next train for sure.
“I have to be, because it’s the last train,” he said. “What are you doing?”
He did show up an hour later, full of energy, and very, very happy. He made himself a sandwich, and then sat on my bed to watch the Olympics with me.
“So, you’re here, watching the Olympics in the middle of the night?” said Cousin. “Cool.”
Then he yawned, and I said that he could take a nap if he wanted to.
“No, no, I wanna see Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson race,” he said. “Besides, I’m not tired. Not at all. I’m full of energy.”
He did lie down, but a minute later, sat up and announced that he wasn’t even tired. “Not one bit.” And then he lay down again, and another minute later, I heard him snicker. Just as I was about to ask him what he was laughing about, he sat up.
“I can’t sleep! I’m not tired!” he shouted, laughing.
Then his head hit the pillow again. This time, he fell asleep, and nothing could wake him up. Not even the sound of the starting pistol for the 100 meter race.
I slept on the floor that night. I couldn’t believe Ben Johnson had won.