Clas Thunberg finished on every speed skating podium at Chamonix 1924. With three golds, a silver and a bronze, he collected more medals than any other athlete at the inaugural Olympic Winter Games, and followed up that feat by winning the world allround titles in Oslo in 1925 and in Davos in 1928.
Third in the 500m at Chamonix, the 34-year-old Thunberg was not expected to challenge for gold in the event at St Moritz 1928, not with Norway’s Roald Larsen having set a new world record of 43.1 at the Davos world championships a few days earlier.
Drawn together in the second pair, Thunberg and Larsen waged an enthralling duel, with the Norwegian taking an early lead before being pegged back by his Finnish rival, who edged the sprint finish and stopped the clock in a new Olympic record time of 43.4, just two tenths clear of Larsen.
Racing against compatriot Oskar Olsen, Norway’s Bernt Evensen then matched Thunberg’s time to earn a share of the gold medal, with Larsen ending a joint bronze medallist with the USA’s John O’Neil Farrell and Finland’s Jaakko Friman.
It was a confident Thunberg who contested the 1,500m the following day, the Finn having not been beaten over the distance all winter, comfortably winning the Finnish, European and world titles in the process. As fate would have it, he faced off against fellow 500m gold medallist Evensen, with the duo matching each other stride for stride in an engrossing tussle.
Thunberg was the better sprinter, however, and surged clear in the closing metres, crossing the line eight tenths clear of his opponent to win his fifth Olympic title in a time of 2:21.1, with Evensen taking silver and his fellow countryman Ivan Ballangrud claiming the bronze.The only man to match Thunberg’s haul of five speed skating golds is the USA’s Eric Heiden, who achieved the feat in a single Games, Lake Placid 1980, while the Finn’s overall tally of seven Olympic medals has yet to be matched in his sport. Though St Moritz 1928 was Thunberg’s final Winter Games, he set world records at all distances in the early 1930s, with his time of 1:28.4 in the 1,000m remaining unbeaten for the next 25 years.