Close to the Swedish border in Finnish Lapland, 15 miles above the Arctic Circle, a tiny form darts, elflike, through forests of pine and fir. Moving forward on a pair of slender skis, stabbing the snow carpet with two sticks, slithering downhill, pumping uphill, the figure disappears in the gray clouds that sit like mournful ghosts atop the highest slopes. In the valleys below, reindeer tiptoe around isolated villages and warmly bundled children bicycle on frozen rivers.
This is a remote land, of quiet, almost eerie beauty, a setting for an old-fashioned fairy tale. But for the farmers and woodcutters and reindeer herders who live here, it is also a land of bitter pervading cold, where the infirm or inebriated who try to travel after dark are sometimes discovered stiff as icicles when the long, long arctic night has passed. To a dark, wiry Finn named Eero Mantyranta, who is indeed the elusive figure gliding through the forests on his slender cross-country skis, it is a way of life as natural as the rolling Pacific to a Polynesian or the dry desert heat to an Arab. Mantyranta has lived in this unique world for the full 26 years of his life. He put on his first pair of skis when he was 3 years old. He fell through the ice at 10 and was fished out stiff as a frozen carp and revived. He won his first silver cup for skiing at 11 and has been busy ever since winning enough cups and other baubles to stock a fair-sized gift shop. He is now the foremost Finn in that lonely, exhausting sport known as cross-country skiing, at which his nation has long excelled. If skiing glory should come to Finland in these next two weeks, Mantyranta is the racer most likely to bring it.
He is a man with a singular capacity for solitude and self-discipline. He needs it, for the loneliness of the long-distance skier is particularly intense. Most sports surround an athlete with teammates, opponents and crowds. But in cross-country, the individual competitor is sent off in an interval between opponents to race against times that others record while he is out on the course—or after he finishes. His field of combat is an undulating snow track snaking through trees, sharp turns, sudden ascents and descents. Except for rare encounters with overtaken opponents, the racer is alone with his agony and his ambition. A 15-kilometer run (9.3 miles) will take him a bit over 45 minutes, the 30-kilometer about an hour and 40 minutes and the 50-kilometer just under three hours.
The real loneliness, however, comes in training. Men like Mantyranta condemn themselves to a kind of solitary confinement in the great, gusty outdoors, going out day after day to slip through the forests for long hours without meeting another soul. This confinement calls for special human qualities, and Eero Mantyranta is a special kind of man. In appearance, he is quite unlike the great blond gods the Scandinavian countries seem to produce for their athletic teams. Mantyranta's hair is black and brushed straight back. Black eyebrows make long arcs over his brown eyes. His face has, in fact, a touch of the Mediterranean, complementing a personality that is pleasing, modest and good-natured. No dour Finn, he laughs easily, and, in the words of a countryman, "seems to have a bit of the Italian about him." He weighs only 143 pounds and stands 5 feet 7 inches. He would like to have another inch or two just to lengthen his skiing stride; otherwise his whippetlike body is eminently suited to the task of streaking over the track on the lightest possible skis. Most important, however, he possesses an ability to concentrate and endure, a mental toughness that the Finns are fond of calling sisu. This word is, in a harsh gray land, a national slogan. It means, roughly, guts.
Mantyranta was born in November, 1937 near the village of Pello in northwestern Finland, just above the Gulf of Bothnia. He lived on a small farm three kilometers distant from his school and on the other side of a lake. He would walk and row to school in warm weather and—like all other rural Finns—go by skis and ice skates in winter. As a teen-ager he experienced a loneliness that was severe even by the harsh standards of this empty land. "My two older brothers would go out in the woods and work together," he says. "I would go out alone, cutting down and trimming trees."
It was during these difficult early years that Mantyranta began to thirst for the glory of ski competition. In Finland, he explains, "Your boyhood heroes are sportsmen, especially skiers. They do almost entirely cross-country, because Finland has very few hills or lifts. You start training because you think it must be wonderful to be just like them. You don't realize how hard it is."
Mantyranta had both the tenacity and stamina to stick to training. Today his record is both long and distinguished for a man of only 26, for by the calendar of maturity of the cross-country racer, he should be just now entering his prime. He began on a national scale in 1955 by placing 10th in the Finnish championship's 10-kilometer race for boys 17 and 18 years old. By 1959, he was a member of the winning Finnish relay team at the Boden, Sweden games. And in the 1960 Winter Olympics he earned a gold medal for helping take the 4 x 10-kilometer relay for Finland.
After that, Mantyranta had a stunning succession of individual triumphs in the 15-kilometer and 30-kilometer triumphs at Le Brassus, Switzerland, the Finnish championships, the Ounasvaara games, the Boden games, Norway's Holmenkollen games, the 1962 world championships at Zakopane, Poland and the 1963 games at Umea, Sweden.
This sort of sampling of the record gives only the barest hint of the staggering number—some 300—and variety of competitions that Mantyranta has entered in his career. It is a quantity of skiing all the more notable because of the nature of his occupation. He is now a Finnish customs guard who spends much of his working time on skis. He dresses in white for camouflage, straps on a pistol and goes out by day and in the long, cold Lapland night to stop illegal crossings of the Finnish-Swedish border.
Mantyranta is content with his customs job because it enables him to live in his hometown and spend his mornings in training. He gets some time off with pay to enter most important competitions, but the days off for less important races are squeezed out of his vacation time. At present, he is deeply annoyed that his government will not pay him during the two-month leave he has just taken to get himself in fighting trim for the Olympics. Many Finns deplore this, too, but they assure any foreigner that "ours is a poor country" and has little money for its athletes.
At home, Mantyranta lives in a two-bedroom house just outside Pello, a town of 3,000. His wife Raakel is a shy, blonde, hometown girl whom he married in 1958. They have a 4-year-old girl and a boy of almost 2 years ("he will start skiing next spring"). The children climb constantly on their accommodating father as if he were a favorite gum tree. The house is full of the kind of potted plants that Scandinavians and Russians love to have indoors through the long winters when a reluctant sun appears only briefly, if at all. There are dogs bounding all over the place, a sauna out beyond the boiler room, rifles and pistols hanging from reindeer horns and picture-postcard views of snow-blanketed fields from every window. The living room is lined by glass cases stuffed with more than 200 silver and gold trophies.
Although he occasionally plays the mandolin and looks at a book, Mantyranta's real recreation is hunting. Skiing has become his cross. As a boy, he was fired with the desire to excel in skiing, and thus felt a certain amount of joy in the daily struggle. "Now," he says, "the only satisfaction I get out of it is winning. Many times during competition I tell myself I won't go through this again. But when it's over I forget it and the next thing I know I'm lined up for another race. Then, if I come in third or fourth the papers say I'm competing too much, but if I refuse to compete they scream. Sometimes I look in the paper and I find my name has been entered for a competition I didn't know about.
"Well, it gets to be too much. Sometimes we have to turn out the lights, lock the door and not answer the phone just to get some peace."
His wife is proud of his success but anxious for him to quit. Although his visits to other countries, brief as they are, have given Mantyranta a taste of the outside world (thanks to the jet age he finds all countries "pretty much alike"), Raakel hopes that he will soon be able to stay home with her, the kids and the trophies. Even when Mantyranta is home, he is usually out in the snow, doing a regular 60 kilometers on a variety of tracks which take him to his parents' farm, where he stops for a change of clothes, and then home again.
When he dresses for training or competition his uniform is so light that he would soon freeze to death if he were foolish enough to stand still for long. On top of long underclothes he wears a white long-sleeved windproof blouse and blue trousers tucked into thick white stockings that reach just below his knees. His boots are low and flexible, very much like a pair of spikeless track shoes. Fully dressed and in repose, he looks like a high-stockinged baseball player, vintage 1910. Then he plants on his head a brightly colored wool cap, like the one he is wearing at right, and steps lithely onto his slim racing skis. Made of laminated birch, they are only 2½ inches wide, 6 feet 8 inches long. At the tips they curl like Persian slippers. To allow for the heel lift of the racer's exaggerated stride, the skis are clamped to his shoes only at the toes.
Mantyranta's ski poles are especially long to give him those precious extra inches of momentum. Knees bent at all times, torso leaning forward in an exaggerated comma, he takes long sliding steps with his skis, using his poles constantly for extra thrust and balance. At any one point in time he will actually be traveling on just one ski while the other is lightly raised from the snow, skimming forward. At top speed his arms and legs resemble a scissors in fast motion. Trees brush past his elbows and stumps seem to reach out to snare him. Suddenly the track dips and he hurtles downhill.
The downhill slopes are welcome, of course. "When you think you're so exhausted you can't go on, a good downhill run will give you a chance to recover your strength." But it is the uphill skiing that separates the champions from the also-rans. Going uphill, the cross-country skier usually plants his skis firmly in rapid steps, pushes hard on his poles and applies all the forward body motion he can get. If his skis slip he realizes that his wax has failed him, or else he has failed to wax properly. And it is an axiom of this frustrating sport that the talent for choosing and applying the right wax can make all the difference. If Mantyranta has any noticeable weakness it is his self-admitted lack of confidence in waxing.
"Choosing a wax," Mantyranta explains, "depends on so many factors. If it is a hard frost with sharp particles you need a hard wax. If the snow is soft and sticky you choose a softer wax. But what if it's a hard frost at the heights and soft in the valleys? You have to decide whether it is old snow or new snow and what the temperatures are at different places on the track. When the temperature is just at freezing, it's murder. I have the feeling I will never learn to wax properly."
Once on the course, however, Mantyranta is a shrewd competitor who knows how to shave seconds off his running time. He will, for example, take full advantage of depressions in the track which enable him to flex his skis at the exact instant of bridging the hole, so he can spring forward with an extra burst of speed. "This is where experience counts," says Mantyranta. "You have to achieve a certain rhythm and then pace yourself. You have to get used to the strain and all the hard effort without getting hot or letting your pulse beat too fast. There's no time to relax. You hit your top speed early and try to sustain it all the way. Sometimes things start blurring in front of you and you think that you've had it, but then there might be a downhill to let you get your breath back. Sometimes it can be very discouraging when you start off in a good mood and then find that your skis don't play well and you know you're going to lose."
Finland will send to Innsbruck an Olympic squad of some 25 members. The top man, of course, is Mantyranta. He can go any distance, and may do them all—15, 30 and 50 kilometers. He feels perfectly ready, though the Olympic cross-country course at Seefeld is, according to Mantyranta, the toughest, most exhausting he has ever encountered. It seems to defy nature by going uphill much more than downhill, including one solid five-kilometer uphill stretch on the 30-kilometer track. Exactly one year ago, Mantyranta skied at Seefeld and came in 10th in the 30-kilometer run. This time, he has been given just a week at Seefeld before the Olympics to get used to the track.
What Mantyranta and the rest of the Finns find even more ominous than the Seefeld course, however, are the stories—and the evidence in their own backyard—of extraordinary efforts by other countries to train their skiers. On the Lapland trails these past months, the Finns have been running into East Germans and Japanese. Italians are going to Sweden, and Swedes have been going to Italy. To Mantyranta, it is the Italians who look like the big new threat in cross-country skiing. "They have been doing a lot of training, and they are used to the altitude at Seefeld." Marcello de Dorigo strikes him as the greatest Italian skier. Among the Norwegians, he rates Harald Gronningen as the top man. Of his Finnish colleagues, he suggests Arto Tiainen and Kalevi Hamalainen, a two-time gold medalist.
In terms of great expectations, however, Mantyranta himself is the man to watch. He has a cool, unemotional, almost cynical approach to his task. Since the beginning of winter, he has skied—exclusive of competitions—well over 1,000 kilometers to get his muscles in perfect condition. But he looks at downhill skiing enviously and wonders just when it was that the fun went out of cross-country skiing. Even so, he admits there are still magical moments in the depths of the forests when only his own whispering skis disturb nature's deep silence. He feels the wonder of it all and knows he would live no other way in no other place.