Spectators who saw Hannes Kohlemainen breaking the world record in the 5,000 metres at the 1912 Olympic Games knew that they hade witnessed an event that people would talk about for decades to come. So sensational was the Finn’s duel with Frenchman Jean Bouin that it was hard to imagine any sporting drama surpassing it. When the final took place on 10 July, 22-year-old Kohlemainen was certain that the fight for the gold medal would be between him and his French adversary. Bouin’s tactic was to take an early lead and hope to shake off his competitor. While the rest of field quickly fell away, the tenacious Kohlemainen refused to let go. As the two men entered the final lap, the Stockholm Olympic Stadium was at boiling point. The Frenchman maintained his lead until they rounded the final bend, when Kohlemainen drew level and, with 20 metres to the finishing line, finally took the lead. The Finns winning time was 14:36.6. Bouin clocked 14:36.7. The timekeepers stared at their stopwatches in astonishment. Surely the runners must have run one lap too little? Both had broken the world record by half a minute.
For Kohlemainen, the “Sunshine Olympics” of 1912 was a triumphal procession. He also took gold in the 10,000 metres and cross-country. His victories were highly significant to Finland, which in 1912 was still part of the Russian Empire. Kohlemainen became the first Finnish national sporting hero and abroad he was dubbed the Flying Finn. Jean Bouin’s life was cut short in the trenches of the First World War only a few months after hostilities commenced in 1914. He was 25 years old. Kohlemainen returned for the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp, were he won yet another gold medal, this time in the marathon.