Ritola's parents were farmers in western Finland near Seinäjoki. He was born in Peräseinäjoki, Finland. He was the 14th child in his family and had altogether 19 siblings, five of whom had died in infancy. 6 of the children were from his father's first marriage, 14 from the second, including Ville.
In 1913 he followed seven of his siblings and emigrated to the United States to work as a carpenter. There he started training in 1919 when he was already 23 years old. Later he many times referred to this late start of his sports career, and how it put him in a disadvantage compared to his rivals, especially the more famous of the Flying Finns, Paavo Nurmi, who started systematic training in his teens. In 1919 he joined the Finnish-American Athletic Club and trained together with Hannes Kolehmainen, who had moved to the United States after the 1912 Summer Olympics. In spring 1919 he took part in his first competition, a New York street race, and finished 33rd among 700 competitors. Only after this he started to train systematically.
Kolehmainen tried to convince the young Ritola to join the Finnish 1920 Summer Olympics team, but Ritola stated he was not ready yet. He had also just got married to Selma née Aaltonen. In 1921 he started to compete systematically, and in 1922 he won his first AAU Championship gold medals. The same year he came second in the Boston Marathon.
During 1923 American Finns started collecting funds to pay for Ville Ritola's trip to Finland, where in May 1924 he took part in the Finnish Olympic qualification competitions. In the 10,000 m qualifying race Ritola won with a world record time of 30.35.4. This was Ritola's first official world record.
At the 1924 Paris Olympics, he won four gold and two silver medals. He had a start on eight consecutive days to achieve this, all long-distance.
In his first race, the 10,000 m, in the absence of Nurmi, he won by half a lap and obliterated his own fresh 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 3000 m steeplechase by 75 metres. The next day he finished second in the 5000 m, 0,2 seconds behind Nurmi. 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 3000 m team race.
Ville Ritola's Paris 1924 triumph is historical. Until today his six medals from Paris is the biggest number of medals won by an athlete in one Olympic games event. His four gold medals put him in second place after Paavo Nurmi in the number of gold medals won by an athlete in one Olympic Games event.
After the Olympics Ville Ritola had to return to the US to find employment, while his pregnant wife remained in Finland. His daughter Anja was born in November 1924. Selma joined her husband in the US with the baby in March 1925.
In winter 1924-1925 Ville Ritola competed in United States and Canada and beat world record times on 3000 m (8.26,8), 3000 m steeplechase (9.18.6), 5000 m (14.23,2), 2 miles, 2 mile steeplechase, 3 miles and 5 miles. These were not official world records as they were run indoors.
In 1928 Ville Ritola was already 32 years old and had worked in construction for more than a decade. He had not trained systematically even though he still had won 4 gold medals in the AAU Championships 1927.
In the 1928 Summer Olympics Ritola's main competitor was again Paavo Nurmi. This time each got one win. First race was 10,000m. Ritola took lead at 1,500m, and only four competitors followed. At 3,000m Ray (US) dropped from the leading group and before 4,000 Beavers (UK). As Wide (Sweden) dropped at 6,500m, only Nurmi followed Ritola. 100m before finish Nurmi sprinted and won by 0.6 seconds. Wide was third, losing by a 45.2s margin.
Ritola's last Olympic appearance was in the 5,000 m. Both Ritola and Nurmi had hurt themselves in the steeplechase qualification competitions. Nurmi had a sore hip and Ritola a sore ankle. However, Ritola took again the lead at 2,500m. 600m before finish only Ritola and Nurmi were left in the leading group. This time, Ritola pulled away from Nurmi in the final curve and won by 12 metres - 3 seconds. Wide nearly caught Nurmi, and Nurmi only held on to silver by a 0.2s margin. This victory brought Ritola's career total to five Olympic gold medals and three silver medals.
Ritola never competed in the Finnish championships, 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.
Ritola retired from athletics soon after the 1928 Olympic Games. He only took part in a few US competitions after 1928. He returned to American construction sites and worked in physically consuming jobs until 1959. He took the US citizenship in 1937. His daughter, now Anja Impola, got married and still lives in the US. Ritola's wife Selma died in 1965 and he remarried Liisa Lauren in 1967. Ritola moved back to Helsinki, Finland with his wife in 1971 and died in Helsinki aged 86.
-A statue for Ville Ritola was prepared by sculptor Maija Nuotio in 1978 and it is placed in his homeplace Peräseinäjoki (now part of Seinäjoki).
-A sports hall in Peräseinäjoki was named RitolaHalli
-At Ville Ritola's funeral in 1982 the coffin bearers included other Olympic heroes like Lasse Viren.
-Kunto-Ritola, annual long-distance event
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.