Fight to the Finnish in Montreal ’76

Into the final straight (L-R) Dixon, Foster, Quax, Hildenbrand and Viren (YouTube screen shot)

You might remember an earlier blog post about Steve Prefontaine, the iconic U.S. athlete who battled with Lasse Viren of Finland in a dramatic 5,000 metres final in Munich in 1972. Surely the same event four years later couldn’t live up to that electrifying race, including its classic commentary by David Coleman of the BBC?

Well, in fact the 1976 Olympic 5,000 metres final in Montreal was another thriller, with one of the most exciting last laps you’ll ever see.

Prefontaine wasn’t there, sadly. He died in a car crash the previous year, aged only 24, and has since become the most mythologised and beloved figure in American athletics. Two of his nemeses from Munich featured in the Montreal race – Viren and Ian Stewart of Great Britain. Another Briton in the final, Brendan Foster, was European champion at the distance. Completing the group of favourites were two New Zealanders, Dick Quax and Rod Dixon, the latter a bronze medallist in the 1,500 metres four years earlier.

Also missing from the line-up were much-fancied African athletes like Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia, due to the pan-African boycott in protest at the New Zealand rugby team’s tour of apartheid-era South Africa that year. As with the 1,500 metres final, the absence of top African challengers ironically benefitted the two New Zealanders who made the 5,000 metres final.

Viren was looking to win a unique double-double. Following up his 5,000 metre and 10,000 metre wins in Munich, he had already won the longer race in Montreal ahead of Portugal’s Carlos Lopes (whatever happened to him afterwards?) and Foster. If he could retain his 5,000 metre title Viren would write his name into the annals of the greatest runners ever.

Without a Prefontaine to burst open the field, the race was an edgy and tightly-packed affair. Most of the main contenders tried the classic tactic of injecting a fast lap or two so that the faster sprinters would deplete their energy. An early spell of front running by Foster stretched the field slightly but everyone stayed together in a cautious bunch as the laps reeled past. Viren exuded tactical calmness throughout the race, sitting back through the early stages.

With seven laps left, just before the halfway point of the race, the Finn took up the running for a couple of laps. Foster then took back the initiative and slowed the pace back down again. Klaus-Peter Hildenbrand of West Germany was the next one to push from the front. With two and a half laps left, Viren went again and forced his challengers to keep up with him.

Coming to the bell, a grandstand finish was on the cards – a leading group of seven included all the favourites, plus the slightly comical tramp-like figure of little Aniceto Simões of Portugal.

As always with athletics in the 1970s, David Coleman of the BBC gave a commentary that enhanced the excitement of the race. Entering the back straight for the last time, Viren still led but Foster was boxed in; “Foster can’t get out!’ shrieked Coleman, as if Foster were a ragged urchin trapped in a burning orphanage.

With 200 metres to go Viren was fighting off attacks from Hildenbrand, Dixon and Quax. Around the final bend Stewart faded out of contention; Foster was hanging on grimly but seemed to have nothing left in the tank. Quax edged slightly in front of Viren, while Dixon had to run wide in lane three to try and pass his compatriot.

For a split-second the defending champion looked vulnerable – but then he kicked again with 60 metres left. It was a decisive move; Viren’s earlier tactics and control of the lead had taken the sprint out of his rivals. “And Viren defends his title wonderfully well!” Coleman exclaimed, almost more triumphantly than the victorious and serious Finn. Quax ran in for the silver, and Dixon looked like he would have to settle for bronze.

But Dixon wasn’t there yet. The New Zealander was tying up badly. And with an even later surge than Stewart’s in Munich, Hildenbrand crept up on Dixon and flung himself across the line, landing in a heap. With this one desperate and spectacular action, the German nabbed the bronze from Dixon right in the final strides.

As this short documentary piece recounts, the two Kiwis were devastated by the outcome of the race. Both had serious aspirations to win gold, and yet Viren had used his tactical astuteness to defeat them. (The Finn acknowledges this in the same video.)

Throughout his career and ever since, Viren has been accused of blood doping – not illegal at the time but considered unethical all the same. This charge has not been proven, though other Finnish runners of the same era blood-doped. Viren denies it, citing reindeer milk as a dietary secret that gave him a natural edge.

In any case, Viren had other advantages – he trained like a professional in an amateur era, even going to the high altitude of east Africa to follow a punishing training regime. He also noticeably stayed as close as possible to the inside of the track during his major finals, and so avoided adding unnecessary distance to his race. (Dixon probably lost the bronze in 1976 because of having to move out wide before the final sprint.)

Still, for a man who won such an elusive double-double Viren doesn’t feature prominently in the Olympic nostalgia of newspapers and websites these days.

You can watch most of the race in this video, with Finnish commentary that understandably goes berserk at the end. But if English is your language, then here’s the thrilling last lap of the 1976 Olympic 5,000 metres final, with fantastic BBC commentary by David Coleman:

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