From Paavo Nurmi to Emil Zatopek, from Olympic golds to innovation: the story of an iconic brand

It all started with the javelin, the discus, the skis, and most of all, the running shoes. Little is said about the origins of Karhu, little is written.

Yet behind this brand there are faces and legs that have indelibly entered the sporting legend: a brand that came from the far north and arrived on the Olympic podiums throughout the first half of the 20th century, and beyond.


Let’s start this story with a curiosity. Karhu was founded as a small company in the heart of Helsinki: it was 1916, and the first name conceived for this activity was ‘Oy Urheilutarpeita’, a generic name referring to the production of sports equipment. Four years later, the first stylized drawing of a bear appeared on the premises of the small Finnish workshop. ‘Karhu’ in the Suomi language means bear: the animal that from that moment would become an epithet, as well as a symbol, of the company itself.

That’s not all, though. Karhu, immediately specialized in disciplines such as javelin and discus throwing, skiing and running, made himself recognizable by three strips applied methodically on each shoe. Three stripes: graphic concept that was purchased in 1952 by a particular German entrepreneur, that Adolf ‘Adi’ Dassler who created Adidas. Legend has it that the ‘three stripes’ were bought for the equivalent of 1600 euros and two bottles of whiskey.

What is certain is that the minds behind Karhu did not pay too much attention to that original barter, they soon forgot the stripes and invented the M-Symbol which celebrates the Finnish word ‘Mestari’ (Champion): still in use today.


It is difficult to try to explain the impact of Paavo Nurmi on the Olympic Games in Antwerp 1920, Paris 1924 and Amsterdam 1928. The list of 9 golds and 3 silvers conquered by the native of Turku, an ancient Finnish capital clinging to the Swedish border, is not enough to describe a muscular omnipotence that radiated and elevated many of his fellow countrymen, generating the gusts of the so-called ‘Flying Finns’.

That group of Nordic arrows shot on the racing tracks by the Norse myth dominated international racing. Nurmi succeeded in something unthinkable when in the Parisian Olympics he won the 1500 and 5000 meters in just one hour, setting the new Olympic record in both cases. He, Hannes Kolehmainen, Ville Ritola and all the other Finnish medium and long distance runners had one thing in common: the Karhu branded shoes.


They called him ‘Human Locomotive’, he claimed he had too little talent to run and smile at the same time. Emil Zatopek is the emblem of physical suffering sublimated into a sporting result: with his face tilted to the side, his tongue hanging out and his back arched, he is, and always will be, an image of glorious fatigue, of imperfect excellence.

The pinnacle of his athletic legend came as a strange coincidence in Helsinki 1952, where the Czechoslovakian won three golds in the 5,000, 10,000 meters and marathon. In all the races he ran with the local Karhu at his feet. The marathon, the last great appointment of the Games and the most steeped in historical sense, saw Zatopek line up at the starting line without any specific previous preparation. Before then, in fact, the Czechoslavian runner had never run a race over that distance. The result was an amazing time of 2h23’03 ”.

In those Scandinavian Games Karhu ‘won’ a total of 15 golds: a legacy to be proud of, a sporting past that has never ceased to inhabit the essence of this brand, as evidenced by the first license for Air Cushion on running shoes deposited in the 1970s, the Fulcrum technology studied over the following decade with the University of Jyväskylä and the much more recent Ort Fix invention for soles. Who would have thought that that Nordic bear would have affected the world of sports so deeply…


As demonstrated by the first license for Air Cushion on running shoes filed in the 1970s, the Fulcrum technology. As shown by innovations aimed at greater propulsive thrust and studied over the following decade with the University of Jyväskylä. As demonstrated by the much more recent Ort Fix sole invention.

But that’s not all. This is also demonstrated by the recent LEGEND FW21 capsule, able to connect Karhu’s sporty heritage with the collegiate universe. The 80s American university outfit, in this latest creation of the brand of Finnish origin, is embellished by the constant presence of sport: an idea certified by the reference to the concept of collegiate ‘team’ and the famous bear logo, here reinterpreted as ‘Heslinki Sport Logo’. 

Because sport, in Karhu, will always be a fundamental element.