Brief History of Karhu Running Shoes
Although not as well-known as other running shoe brands, Karhu has a rich 100 year heritage that includes their shoes being worn by exceptional Olympic athletes like Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek.
Karhu started making Javelins, Skis and Discuss using locally sourced birch from a small workshop in a side street in Helsinki way back in 1916. The company was then called Ab Sportartiklar Oy. Finnish birch was discovered to be uniquely lightweight and flexible and ideal for many Sporting implements, including running spikes that Karhu therefore started to develop. Finish Birch gave the running spikes some spring like the modern day carbon plate does.
In 1917, Karhu made its first foray into the US on the feet of Hannes Kolehmainen, the four-time Olympic Gold medallist (5,000m, 10,000, and Cross Country in 1912, Marathon in 1920) and first “Flying Finn”, and Ville Ritola (Olympic Gold in 1924 10,000m, 3000m Steeplechase, 3000m steeplechase team, Cross Country Team 1928 5000m), the “Flying Wolf”, who both raced at Berwick, PA in 1917.
Three years later in 1920, Ab Sportartiklar Oy officially became Karhu—taking its name from the Finnish word meaning “bear”. That same year, Karhu truly made its mark on the sporting world when it dominated the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp. The “Flying Finns” took five gold medals on the track in Karhu spikes, while Finnish athletes took all three medals in the javelin using Karhu’s birch javelins. Finland came away as the fourth most successful nation at the games, and shortly after Karhu became Finland’s official equipment provider for all Olympic games.
(Left) The Three Stripes — Karhu dominates the 1952 Helsinki Olympics with 15 gold medal-winning spikes, including those of Emil Zatopek. Karhu sells its three stripes trademark to a now well-known athletic shoe company that still uses it to this day.
Over the next eight years, Paavo Nurmi would bring nine Olympic gold medals back to Finland, setting 22 official world records along the way wearing Karhu Spikes.
These early years marked just the beginning of Karhu’s influence on the sporting world. Over the next 50 years, the brand would have a substantial presence at the Olympic games in more ways than one.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Karhu founder Arno Hohental encouraged factory workers to get outdoors and train during their lunch hours; by 1932, his initiative paid off big time when Karhu factory workers Matti Järvinen (javelin) and Lauri Lehtinen (5000m) won gold in Los Angeles. Despite the impact of the Second World War when Karhu supported the Finnish army by manufacturing camouflage uniforms, platoon tents, army boots, rucksacks, and skis, Karhu continued its Olympic legacy post-war, dominating the 1952 Olympics on home soil in Helsinki with 15 gold medal-winning spikes on the feet of athletes including Czech athlete Emil Zatopek, who remains the only runner to have won the 5,000m, 10,000m and Marathon in one Olympic Games.
For its first 35 successful years, Karhu had identified its gold medal-winning spikes using three distinct stripes on the side of its shoes. But in 1951, a little-known German brand contacted Karhu interested in purchasing the rights of its three-stripe branding. Thinking nothing of the deal, Karhu agreed to sell its three-stripe trademark for the equivalent of €1,600 and two bottles of good whiskey as a sweetener.
Karhu replaced the three stripes with an equally striking brand mark: its now famous M-symbol. Symbolising the word “Mestari” or “champion” in Finnish, Karhu’s symbolic M was officially registered in 1960 and coincided with the production of the brand’s first trainer, the Trampas.
Continuing its tradition of industry-leading innovation, in 1970 Karhu developed its patented “Air Cushion” midsole system for its running footwear. Karhu’s Champion model, the hero trainer for the Air Cushion technology, became an instant top seller with runners worldwide, selling over 1,000,000 pairs globally.
Finish Runner Olavi Suomalainen despite having not run further than 25km before stormed to victory in the 1972 Boston Marathon in a pair of Karhu Air Cushion in a time of 2 hours 15 minutes 39 seconds.
But by 1980, many competitors had followed Karhu’s lead and were adding large air bags, gel pockets and similar technologies to their running shoes to recreate the impact of Karhu’s Air Cushion. Meanwhile, Karhu was working with the University of Jyvaskyla on the creation of a new technology, called “Fulcrum”.
While the industry was trying to provide greater bounce and cushioning for runners, Karhu figured that what runners needed was a shoe that moved them forward rather than up and down. Independent research shows that runners bounce up and down half an inch less per step benefitting from Karhu’s pivoting Fulcrum technology, helping runners conserve energy in their stride for a greater performance.
Shoes with Fulcrum’s where launched onto the market in 1986 and remain in Karhu shoes to this day. Originally the Fulcrum consisted of the pivot point in the shoe that was made of a denser EVA than the surrounding midsole. In 2019 Karhu pioneered the combination of a composite Fulcrum, encapsulated by liquid based foam. This combines the forward propulsion that the Fulcrum offers with long lasting shock absorption and durability.
This shows that Karhu is continuing to evolve its running shoes over 100 years since they started making them.