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Ab Sportartiklar Oy establishes a small workshop in downtown Helsinki where locally sourced birch was transformed into the first products: javelins, skis and discuses. It didn’t take long to realise that Finnish birch provided a distinct advantage – its light weight and flexibility helped athletes throw and glide farther and with more efficiency. Running spikes are also developed, and land in the U.S. at the feet of Hannes Kolehmainen, the first “Flying Finn,” and Ville Ritola, the “Flying Wolf,” who raced in Berwick, PA in 1917. Below right: Hannes Kolehmainen (#33) wins in Berwick, PA. 1920 The company name is changed to Karhu, which is Finnish for bear. “The Flying Finns” dominate tracks around the world, garnering recognition for Karhu running shoes.
Soon after, Karhu becomes Finland’s official equipment provider to all Olympic games. Oh, and a guy named Paavo Nurmi runs back home with nine Olympic gold medals in just eight years. Even the Great Depression can’t put a damper on Karhu’s growing popularity and distribution. The company buys its first Model T Ford truck to deliver orders faster. Karhu encourages employees to train during lunch hours and the support pays off big during the 1932 Olympics. Karhu factory workers Matti Järvinen (javelin) and Lauri Lehtinen (5000m) bring back gold from Los Angeles. Below right: Karhu Founder Arno Hohental and staff pack up the hardware for the 1932 LA Olympics. 1940 During WWII, Karhu does its bit in defending Finland. Karhu factories manufacture camouflage uniforms, platoon tents, army boots, rucksacks, and skis for the Finnish army. Karhu dominates the 1952 Helsinki Olympics with 15 gold medal-winning spikes, including those of Emil Zatopek.
Karhu’s international reputation for technical expertise establishes the company as the world’s leading manufacturer of athletic shoes. Karhu sells its three stripes trademark to a now well-known athletic shoe company that still uses it to this day. The price? Two bottles of good whiskey and about 1,600 euros. Below: John Kelley, Antti Viskari, Eino “The Ox” Oksanen. Below right: The Ox would end up winning the ’59, ’61, and ’62 Boston Marathon. 1960 Karhu officially registers its famous M-symbol—the only trademark used in running shoes—derived from the word “Mestari,” which means “champion” in Finnish.
Track and field athletes demand a training shoe, so Karhu develops its first “trainer,” the Trampas. Two versions are produced: one with an M logo for around the track and a second without a logo for casual wear. Below right: Legendary track coach Sir Arthur Lydiard visits the Karhu factory and praises the Trampas fit and quality. 1970 Continuing its tradition of efficiency-driving innovation, Karhu develops the first patented “Air Cushion” midsole system for its running footwear. Karhu’s Champion model becomes an instant top seller with runners worldwide; selling over 1,000,000 pairs globally. Karhu athletes bring their “Air Cushion” shoes with them on the 1975 Finland Tour hosted by Steve Prefontaine in Oregon. Below left: Hayward Field, Oregon. The Karhu Air Cushioned Champion model can be seen in the foreground. Karhu R&D’s collaboration with the University of Jyväskylä results in the development of the “Fulcrum” technology.
While the rest of the industry kept outfitting their shoes with massive air bags, gel pockets and the like, Karhu actually ditched its famous Air Cushion in 1986, because ... well, running is about moving forward, not up and down. The innovative Karhu culture gives birth to “Ortix,” the first in-store measurement system that measures the level of pronation in a runner’s stride. An epic “Ortix” shoe collection is launched and rules the shops in the 1990s. Karhu collaborates with the University of Jyväskylä to develop the next generation of “efficient” running shoes featuring a new midsole patent. Karhu shoes reduce the runner’s vertical bounce by 13% over traditional shoes and by 5% over barefoot running shoes, a true measure of increased efficiency. Karhu is awarded Runner’s World “Best Debut” in 2009. 2010 Our pursuit for efficiency continues every day since 1916, with an emphasis on striking the perfect balance between protection and responsiveness. Our “Faster, Farther, Easier” philosophy results in the creation of 10 different training models, all designed to allow for each runner’s individual interpretation of what efficiency means. In 2013, Karhu unveils the “everyday training shoes of the future,” the Fluid3 Fulcrum and Steady3 Fulcrum.
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