Hannes Kolehmainen

Biographical information

RolesCompeted in Olympic Games
Full nameJohan Pietari "Hannes"•Kolehmainen
Used nameHannes•Kolehmainen
Born9 December 1889 in Kuopio, Pohjois-Savo (FIN)
Died11 January 1966 in Helsinki, Uusimaa (FIN)
Measurements168 cm / 57-58 kg
AffiliationsHelsingin Jyry, Helsinki (FIN) / FAAC, New York (USA)
NOC Finland
Medals OG
Gold 4
Silver 1
Bronze 0
Total 5


Johan Pietari Kolehmainen, known to the sports world as Hannes Kolehmainen, was the first great distance runner of the Olympic Games. His fame is primarily based on his performances at the 1912 Olympics at which he won the gold medal in the 5,000 metres, the 10,000 metres, the individual cross-country race, and set an individual world record for 3,000 metres in the 3,000 metre team race. A joyous spirit with a seeming perpetual smile on his face, he was known as “Smiling Hannes”, in stark contrast to the later seemingly ever-suffering distance running legend, Emil Zátopek of Czechoslovakia. Hannes Kolehmainen was also the first great Finnish distance runner, setting the stage for many to follow him, including Paavo Nurmi, Ville Ritola, Albin Stenroos, Lauri Lehtinen, Volmari Iso-Hollo, and Lasse Virén.

Kolehmainen was born on 9 December 1889 in Kuopio, near Lake Lalki. He was but one of four well-known distance running brothers. The others were August Wiljami (Willie), Kalle, and Taavetti Heikki (Tatu). His older brother, Willie, was the first to achieve international acclaim. Running as a professional, he set a world best for the marathon on 20 October 1912, in Vailsburg, New Jersey. Tatu Kolehmainen also competed in marathons, and led, or was near the lead, of the 1912 Olympic marathon past the halfway mark. The brothers had trained together growing up. In addition to running, they trained with cross-country skiing and several times skiied to Iisalmi, a town about 100 kilometres away, and returned the next day.

Like his brothers, Hannes Kolehmainen began his running career competing in marathons. He ran his first marathon on 16 June 1907, finishing third in a race in Viipuri, Finland. Through 1909, he ran eight marathons, winning his final one on the track in Hanko, Finland, on 19 September 1909. His best time was 2-42:59, run on a track in Göteburg only two weeks earlier. But after 1909, Kolehmainen stopped running marathons, at least for several years. He then turned his attention to the track.

Originally a member of the Kuopion Riento Club, Hannes Kolehmainen moved to Helsinki in 1909 and joined the well-known sports club Helsingin Kisa-Veikot. He ran for that club for several years, but switched to Helsingin Jyry, a workers’ association club, in early 1912. He was by then a renowned runner in his native Finland. In 1911 he had won 22 of 22 races, including the British AAA title over four miles, which was his first major international victory. In early 1912 he trained diligently, recording a solo time trial over three miles in 14:31.2 on 10 June, proving his fitness for Stockholm.

In Stockholm, Kolehmainen became the first great Olympic distance runner. His Olympic efforts began on 7 July, when he won heat one of the 10,000 metres trial to qualify for the final. The next day, he won the 10,000 metres in 31:20.8, a new world record for the distance, and the first world record recognized by the IAAF for 10,000 metres. He won the race by 46 seconds over Lewis Tewanima (USA).

The following day, Kolehmainen raced again, winning the fourth heat of round one of the 5,000 metres. On 10 July, Kolehmainen ran in the 5,000 final, in what was to become one of the greatest races in Olympic history. His main rival was the Frenchman, Jean Bouin. Together they set out at a fairly slow pace. But at 1,500 metres, Bouin took over the lead, and pushed the pace. Kolehmainen responded and ran on Bouin’s shoulder for the next several kilometres. At the beginning of the last lap, Kolehmainen made several attempts to pass Bouin, all to no avail until the final straightaway. Less than 50 metres from the line, Kolehmainen edged ahead briefly, but Bouin spurted, catching him, but never passing him. At the line, Kolehmainen won by less than half a metre. His time was 14:36.6, with Bouin running 14:36.7. Together they shattered the 15-minute barrier, and Kolehmainen’s new world record was almost 25 seconds faster than the previously recorded best (15:01.2 by Arthur Robertson [GBR] in 1908). Philip Noel-Baker later wrote, “Kolehmainen was happy and smiling, a generous competitor and a modest winner. Perhaps my personal affection for Kolehmainen makes me remember that 5,000 metres as the most exciting race I ever saw.”

But Kolehmainen was far from finished in Stockholm. He had a day of rest, and then on 12 July, ran in the heats of the 3,000 metre team race. In heat one, there were only two teams, Finland and the United States. In an upset, the United States won the team contest and Finland did not qualify for the final. But it was hardly Kolehmainen’s fault - he won the race individually in 8:36.9, setting another world record for the distance.

Three days later, the cross-country race was run, with medals awarded to both individuals and teams. Kolehmainen won again, covering the 12 kilometre course 33 seconds ahead of Hjalmar Andersson of the host country. Finland finished second as a team, allowing Kolehmainen to finish his Olympic efforts with three gold medals, one silver medal, and three world records.

After the 1912 Olympic Games, Hannes Kolehmainen moved to the United States. There he competed for both the Irish-American Athletic Club, the Kaleva Athletic Club, and as an honorary member of the Finnish-American Athletic Club. In 1912, 1913, and 1915, he won AAU title over five miles. He also became a naturalized American citizen.

In 1917, Hannes Kolehmainen returned to his first event, the marathon, running the Boston Marathon, but finishing only fourth. In 1920, Kolehmainen won the New York Marathon in 2-47:49.4. This was an Olympic qualifying race for the Americans, but three Finns living in the United States (Kolehmainen, Juho Tuomikoski, and Ville Kyrönen) used the race as their own qualifying race.

The 1920 Olympic marathon course in Antwerp was the longest in Olympic history at 42.75 km. At 20 km. the lead pack consisted of Chris Gitsham (SAF), Auguste Broos (BEL), Kolehmainen, and Italy’s Ettore Blasi, with Estonia’s Jüri Lossman and another Finn, Juho Tuomikoski, close behind. Kolehmainen took the lead at the midpoint of the race and he and Gitsham ran together for almost 15 kilometres. Gitsham, however, was having problems with a leg injury and withdrew shortly thereafter. Kolehmainen by then was pulling away for what appeared would be an easy victory. His time of 2-32:25.8 was a world’s best mark for amateur runners.

After Antwerp, Kolehmainen continued to compete as a runner, but mostly at longer distances, at which he set several world records. He returned to Finland and thereafter represented the Turun Urheiluliitto Club. On 10 October 1920, he set a world record for the 25 kilometre distance, running 1-26:29.8 in Tampere, Finland. He bettered that time with 1-25:20.0, also in Tampere, on 22 June 1922. Later that year, he broke the world record for 30 kilometres, running 1-47:13.4 in Viipuri on 1 October.

Hannes Kolehmainen ran no marathons between 1920 and 1924. He did not run any of the Finnish Olympic marathon trials for 1924, but he ran a 27 kilometre solo trial in 1-35:00 shortly before the Olympics and convinced the Finnish selectors of his fitness. He was chosen to run the marathon in Paris, but did not finish the race. He ran one more marathon in his career. On 17 June 1928, he entered the Finnish Olympic trial in Kauhava, but again failed to finish. It was his last competition.

Hannes Kolehmainen settled again in Finland, where he was revered. He made his living with various careers, including being an inspector, a clerk, a farmer, a mason, and finally, as a businessman. In 1952, when the Olympic Games were held in Helsinki, the Olympic Torch was brought into the stadium by Paavo Nurmi, the man who succeeded Kolehmainen as the greatest Finnish distance runner. Nurmi ran once around the track and then handed the torch to Hannes Kolehmainen, who lit the Olympic Flame in the stadium. Kolehmainen died in Helsinki on 11 January 1966. To the end, he was known as ‘Smiling Hannes’, the first of the Flying Finns.

Personal Bests: 3000 – 8:36.9 (1912); 5000 – 14:36.6 (1912); 10000 – 31:20.8 (1912); Mar – 2-32:36 (1920).


Games Discipline (Sport) / Event NOC / Team Pos Medal As
1912 Summer Olympics Athletics FIN Hannes Kolehmainen
5,000 metres, Men (Olympic) 1 Gold
10,000 metres, Men (Olympic) 1 Gold
3,000 metres, Team, Men (Olympic) Finland 2 h1 r1/2
Cross-Country, Individual, Men (Olympic) 1 Gold
Cross-Country, Team, Men (Olympic) Finland 2 Silver
1920 Summer Olympics Athletics FIN Hannes Kolehmainen
10,000 metres, Men (Olympic) DNS
Marathon, Men (Olympic) 1 Gold
1924 Summer Olympics Athletics FIN Hannes Kolehmainen
Marathon, Men (Olympic) DNF

Olympic family relations

Special Notes