On this day in 1939, Taisto Armas Mäki became the first person to run 10,000 metres in under 30 minutes. Despite his historical achievement, Mäki’s highly promising athletic career met a premature end, as World War II caused the cancellation of the planned 1940 Olympics in his home country, Finland.
Although it is only a small footnote in the complex history of the war, nevertheless it is an interesting tale. In the 1930s the Finnish were the dominant force in men’s long-distance running. In September 1938, Mäki won the 5,000 metres at the European Championships in Paris that what would turn out to be his first, and last, appearance at a major tournament. His winning time for the 5,000 metres was 14:26:8, propelling him ahead of the Swedish runner Henry Jonsson and his fellow Finn Kauko Pekuri.
Only a few weeks afterwards, on 29 September 1938, Mäki won a 10,000 metres race with the fastest time ever recorded: 30:02:0. He had easily beaten Finnish runner Ilmari Salminen by over three seconds, but he had failed to break the 30 minutes barrier.
Mäki was born in Rekola and a shepherd by trade (he was nicknamed the “Rekola herdboy”) but after this victory he rapidly rose to the top of the world of long-distance running. In 1939 he broke another five world records: Miklós Szabó’s previous best time over two miles, by three seconds; Lauri Lehtinen’s previous best time over 5,000 metres, by eight seconds; and most impressive of all, his own record for the 10,000 metres. On 17 September 1939, in Helsinki’s Olympic Stadium, Mäki ran his astounding 10,000 metres time of 29:52:6, smashing the 30-minute mark forever.
By the age of 29, Taisto Armas Mäki was a multiple record-breaker, but international affairs overtook him. After the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Europe was plunged into conflict, and only a couple months afterwards on 30 November 1939 the Winter War broke out between Finland and the Soviet Union. Mäki was conscripted into the army, his times fell away, and the 1940 Helsinki Summer Olympics were cancelled. He never had the opportunity of representing his country in the Olympic Games.