THERE WERE 100 METERS TO GO in the 1976 Olympic single sculls
finals when West Germany's Peter-Michael Kolbe first came
face-to-face with his nemesis, Pertti Karppinen of Finland. Only 22
and a world champion, Kolbe had led the six-man field by a seemingly
insurmountable eight seconds at the race's halfway point. Now,
incredibly, Karppinen was shooting by him. ''I was paralyzed,'' said
Kolbe, reflecting on how Karppinen gained 10.83 seconds on him in the
final 1,000 meters and won by 2.64 seconds.
At the time, the 23-year-old Karppinen seemed a most unlikely
rival. Not only had he never won a major international regatta, he
had barely scraped into this final by winning the repechage, or
losers' bracket. Twelve years later, Kolbe still shakes his head in
disbelief. As he told SI's Anita Verschoth,''All Pertti could have
reasonably hoped for in those Olympics was to make the finals.''
Devastated by the loss, Kolbe retired, but then returned a year
later, vowing to beat Karppinen. Since then, in seven world
championships, Kolbe has won four (in 1978, '81, '83 and '86) and
Karppinen two (in 1979 and '85). In the Olympics, however,
Karppinen's record is perfect. In 1980, with Kolbe absent because of
West Germany's boycott of the Moscow Olympics, Karppinen led from
start to finish to win his second gold medal. Four years later, in
what was a virtual rerun of their first Olympic race, Karppinen
overtook Kolbe in the final 100 meters to win his third title. In
Seoul, Karppinen will be seeking a record fourth Olympic gold, while
Kolbe will be shooting for his first. Although East Germany's Thomas
Lange, who won the world championship in '87, could very well beat
them both, the upcoming Karppinen-Kolbe showdown has stirred
Karppinen speaks neither German nor English, and Kolbe speaks no
Finnish, so they have talked only briefly with each other through a
translator. The distance Karppinen maintains between himself and his
rivals is vexing to Kolbe. Once Kolbe and several other rowers
sounded out a Finnish coach about Karppinen's training methods while
Karppinen stood silently behind. ''I couldn't help thinking, This is
just like at a horse race,'' recalls Kolbe. ''You talk to the
trainer while his horse is standing behind him. He didn't even know
what we were talking about.''
''They are not enemies,'' says Karppinen's coach, Juha Peltonen.
''But I can't call them friends. They only meet at important
competitions when there is no time to talk.''
Both grew up near water, in regions where rowing is popular:
Karppinen in Raisio, a small town near Turku on Finland's
southwestern coast, and Kolbe in Hamburg, a city of lakes and canals.
But their adult lives have followed different paths. The more
outgoing Kolbe married a Norwegian and lives with her and their
seven-year-old son in Oslo, where he works part time for a German
ball-bearing manufacturer; Karppinen stayed in his hometown, where he
resides with his wife and two children. Until the 1984 Olympics,
Karppinen worked as a fireman at an oil refinery in Turku. But after
the Games he was given a no-show job as vice-president of a bus
company and can now train as often as he wants.
The two rowers' differences in temperament are reflected in their
sculling styles. Karppinen's greatest asset is not his form -- though
that has improved recently -- but his strength. ''I try to row every
500 meters at the same speed and then spurt at the end,'' says
Karppinen, who stands a shade over 6 ft. 7 in. and weighs 230 pounds.
''My success is more based on my physical abilities than my
technique.'' Though hardly petite at 6 ft. 4 in., 200 pounds, Kolbe
relies on his nearly flawless technique, which, as even Karppinen
will allow, is among the best in the sport.
The rivalry between Kolbe and Karppinen seems to live more vividly
in the mind of the former than in the latter's. Last summer Kolbe
competed in six regattas and won them all, but he was disappointed
because he didn't get a chance to race Karppinen until the world
championships in Copenhagen. In the final of that competition, the
two rowers raced side by side, Karppinen in lane 3 and Kolbe in lane
4, and so intent was Kolbe on beating his rival that he neglected to
keep an eye on Lange in lane 5. Kolbe got off to a typically great
start. But leading with 500 meters to go, he lost control of an oar,
and Lange passed him. Though Kolbe managed to recover quickly enough
to beat Karppinen by .14 seconds, he had to be content with second
place overall. ''I was only watching Karppinen,'' he said later. ''It
seems I underestimated Lange.''
Last winter Kolbe and Karppinen each worked to build stamina by
cross- country skiing through the Scandinavian wilds. In April,
Kolbe planned to begin rowing on Norway's Lake Arungen, his favorite
training site, but it was still frozen over; so instead he pushed off
every day into Oslo Fjord. Karppinen and the rest of the Finnish team
went south to the rowers' mecca in Piediluco, Italy. The two rivals
have met only twice this year: in a late May regatta at Essen, West
Germany, and in July at Lucerne, Switzerland. Both times Kolbe beat
Karppinen; in the second race, they finished second and third,
respectively, again behind Lange.
Does that mean that Kolbe will have the edge in Seoul? Not
necessarily, since both are training to peak there, and Karppinen
responds almost mystically to the Olympics.
Kolbe and Karppinen, who will both be 35 in Seoul, are now 4-4
against each other in Olympic and world championship competition.
Seoul will be their final meeting because, win or lose, Kolbe plans
to retire. ''I can feel that it gets harder,'' he says. ''My back
ties up; I need a massage every week. One day it has to come to an
end, no matter how it ends.''
This is an article from the Sept. 14, 1988 issue