Finland's Siiri Rantanen, an Olympic gold medallist in cross-country skiing at Cortina D’Ampezzo 1956, has died at the age of 98 ©Finnish Sports Museum

Finland's International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Sari Essayah has led tributes to Olympic gold medallist and women's winter sports pioneer Siiri Rantanen, who has died aged 98.

Rantanen became one of the first women to compete in Olympic cross-country skiing when it was finally introduced to the programme at the 1952 Winter Games in Oslo.

She won the bronze medal behind compatriots Lydia Wideman and Mirja Hietamies for a Finnish clean sweep of the medals in the 10 kilometres race.

Rantanen had finished fast to claim bronze in 42min 50sec, three seconds ahead of the fourth place finisher Marta Norberg of Sweden.

At the 1956 Olympics in Cortina D’Ampezzo, again with Hietamies and Polkunen, she skied the anchor leg to take the Finnish team to gold in the 3x5km.

She eventually crossed the line with a winning margin of 27 seconds after catching Soviet skier Radya Yeroshina in the closing stages.

"I caught up with her on a long descent and passed her with about one kilometre to go," Rantanen recalled in an interview on her 90th birthday.

Rantanen had earlier finished fifth in the individual 10 km, which at the time was still the only other race for women on the programme.

Her final Olympic appearance came in 1960 at Squaw Valley.

Rantanen was the lead off skier this time as Finland won the bronze medal in the relay. 

Finnish Parliament Member Sari Multala also hailed Rantonen as "a true pioneer of women's sport."

"One of Finland's most prominent women athletes, it was easier for us to ski behind," Essayah's social media tribute said.

The Finnish Olympic Committee also paid its own tribute to Rantanen who was the oldest Finnish Olympian at the time of her passing.

"The Finnish Olympic Committee falls silent to honour the memory of a great Finnish athlete, role model and pioneer," a message said.

At the International Ski Federation (FIS) Nordic World Championships in Falun in 1954, Rantanen won the silver medal with Hietamies and Sirkka Polkunen in the 3 x5 km relay.

She also claimed individual silver in the 10km race.

They were achievements which saw her voted Finnish female athlete of the year for the first time, an honour she won on three other occasions.

At the 1958 FIS Nordic World Championships in Lahti, she added a further bronze in the 10km and another relay silver, this time with Toini Pöysti and Pirkko Korkee.

In 1962, at the age of 37, she won her last World Championship medal, a bronze in the 3x5 km relay.

Rantanen had been born in 1924, coincidentally the year Paavo Nurmi, another legendary Finnish figure, had enjoyed his greatest success at the Olympics. 

Her given names were Siiri Johanna but she was nicknamed Äitee.

Rantanen worked as an upholsterer but continued to ski long after her international career was over.

She was also a successful cross country runner and cyclist.

Rantanen won three Finnish cross country titles and a Finnish championship in road cycling. 

Well into her fifties, she was the best female competitor in the "Finlandia Hiihto", an annual ski marathon in 1976 and 1977 and continued to take part in the event until 1996 when she was 71.

Rantanen remained an active skier into her 80s.

In 2009, Rantanen received the Great Cross of Merit for Finnish Sports Culture, the highest decoration in Finnish sport.

When the 2017 FIS Nordic World Championships were held in Lahti, she had made a guest appearance to the delight of the crowd which included Finland's President Sauli Niinistöstä and Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf.

In 2021, Rantanen had her left leg amputated after she had experienced circulatory problems.

She died in a nursing home on May 5 in Lahti.

Such was Rantanen's status in Finnish society that there were immediately calls for her to be given a state funeral.