Born in Peräseinäjoki, Finland, Ville Ritola, nicknamed as Peräseinäjoen Susi (The Wolf from Peräseinäjoki), emigrated to the United States at the age of 17, to join his seven siblings, who had emigrated earlier.
In the United States, Ritola joined the Finnish-American Athletic Club and trained together with Hannes Kolehmainen, who had moved to the United States after the 1912 Summer Olympics. Kolehmainen tried to convince the young Ritola to join the Finnish 1920 Summer Olympics team, but Ritola stated he was not ready yet.
At the 1924 Paris Olympics, he won four gold and two silver medals. In his first race, the 10 000 m, in the absence of Paavo Nurmi, he won by half a lap and obliterated his own world record by more than 12 seconds. Finnish officials had selected Ritola for the race as Nurmi was already running in five other distance events. Three days later, Ritola won the 3,000 m steeplechase by 75 metres. The next day he finished second behind Nurmi in the 5,000 m. Ritola later earned another silver medal behind Nurmi in the individual cross-country race and gained a gold medal as a member of the Finnish cross-country team. Finally, Ritola joined with Nurmi to win the 3,000 m team race.
In the 1928 Summer Olympics, Ritola placed second in the 10,000 m, behind Nurmi. His last Olympic appearance was in the 5,000 m. This time Ritola pulled away from Nurmi in the final curve and won by 12 metres. This victory brought Ritola's career total to five gold medals and three silver medals.
Ritola never competed in the Finnish Nationals, but won a handful of medals in the AAU Championships in United States. He was the AAU champion at 6 miles (9.7 km) in 1927, at 10 miles (16 km) road race in 1922, 1923 and from 1925 to 1927, at 2,000 yd (1,800 m) steeplechase in 1923, 1926 and 1927 and at cross county in 1922, 1923 and from 1925 to 1927.
Ville Ritola retired from athletics after the 1928 Olympic Games. He moved back to Finland in 1971. Ville Ritola died in Helsinki at the age of 86.
Ritola's career inspired a phrase into colloquial Finnish. "Ottaa ritolat", translating as something like "pull a Ritola", means to make a quick exit from somewhere.