Oh, Those Quirky Finns

Olympic glory gives way to swamp soccer and wife-carrying competitions

Posted 12/27/20

In 1998, the remote hamlet of Hyrynsalmi, situated almost 400 miles north of Finland’s capital, Helsinki, launched a swamp soccer tournament...

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Oh, Those Quirky Finns

Olympic glory gives way to swamp soccer and wife-carrying competitions

Posted

In 1998, the remote hamlet of Hyrynsalmi, situated almost 400 miles north of Finland’s capital, Helsinki, launched a swamp soccer tournament. Thirteen teams answered the call to compete in a knee-deep mud event with the hope of laying claim as the world champions of swamp football. Since then, the annual festival grew to about 200 teams and the game’s popularity has even crossed borders. It’s all tongue-in-cheek summer fun, but has Finland traded its rich sports heritage for quirky recreations?

With roughly a quarter of its geography inside the arctic circle, Finland’s 5½ million people live in darkness for most of winter. As summer breaks, the sun-starved population takes to the outdoors with a burst of energy. Six weeks of vacation a year and open access to endless rivers, lakes and forests have created a robust northern stock. The Finns are consistently ranked among the most physically active people in Europe.

Swamp soccer is just one expression of the Finns’ love for all things rugged and eccentric. At another village, the annual Wife-Carrying World Championships got going in 1992. Steeped in local lore, the competition involves a race of men carrying women on their backs through an obstacle course. And then, as a nod to one of the national pastimes, there’s the World Sauna Championships. The winner is, you guessed it- the last person to stay in the sauna before walking out. That event lasted from 1999 until 2010 when one of the schvitz athletes died and the championships were discontinued.

Despite a penchant for offbeat competitions, Europe’s most sparsely populated country has a serious sports legacy. Boasting a Summer Olympics medal for every 18,135 inhabitants, Finland is the winningest nation at the quadrennial Games as measured in medals per capita. Sweden and Norway are closest at 20,046 and 34,427, respectively, making the Nordic family of nations the greatest takers of medals in relation to their demographics. Add the Winter Olympics to the mix and the math is even more skewed in favor of the Scandinavians.

After Finland declared independence from Russia in 1917, sports became an important vehicle for building a national identity and thrusting the country on the international stage. Going back even earlier, the Finns were represented at the 1908 and 1912 Summer Olympics as the Grand Duchy of Finland, since they refused to march under the flag of Imperial Russia. Among the 28 countries that competed at the 1912 Games, the Finns came in 4th with 26 total medals.

Athletics and wrestling comprised most of the country’s accolades. Early running champions like Hannes Kolehmainen, Ville Ritola, and Paavo Nurmi were long-distance record holders known as the ‘Flying Finns’. In recognition of their achievements, Kolehmainen and Nurmi lit the flame at the 1952 Olympic Games when the tournaments came to Helsinki.

Kolehmainen was the first in a generation of talented runners, winning 4 gold medals at the 5,000m, 10,000m, cross country and marathon racing events in 1912 and 1920. He competed for a number of years with the Irish American Athletic Club in New York and ended up becoming a U.S. citizen. Paavo Nurmi more than doubled his predecessor’s medal count and broke multiple records. He dominated the long-distance events in the 1920’s, earning 9 gold and 3 silver medals in three Olympiads: Antwerp, Paris and Amsterdam.

Nurmi made a habit of always running with a stop watch and is credited with introducing a pace strategy to long distance racing. Later becoming an international celebrity and ambassador of the sport, his training methods and analytic approach helped popularize running as an athletic discipline. Nurmi’s stature was celebrated in stamps, bank notes, paintings and statues. In 1996, Time magazine selected the Finnish champion as the greatest Olympian of all time.

In Greco-Roman wrestling, the Finns took gold in most weight categories during the inter-war years. Oskar Friman won both lightweight and featherweight, while Vaino Kokkinen won middleweight twice. Overall, in the first half of the 20th century, spanning 9 Summer Olympics, Finland averaged 21 medals at each global event. In 1924, they even placed second behind the U.S. as the most accomplished nation in the medals count.

But then it all started to decline. Over the past 60 years, Finland has averaged under 6 medals at each Summer Olympics, hitting a low point in 2016 in Rio with just a single bronze in women’s lightweight boxing. With the exception of Lasse Viren’s gold-winning performance in the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the 1972 and 1976 Games, Finland has watched its illustrious history at the Olympic podium steadily fade into memory.

Gone were the days when stars like Nurmi drew crowds and plaudits and stood in greatness next to legendary sports figures like Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, and Bill Tilden. Nevertheless, the Finns’ drive for sports elitism hasn’t diminished. The country remains a winter sports powerhouse, winning the Ice Hockey World Championships three times since 2015, and consistently ranking in cross-country and ski jumping events.

In other prestigious competitions such as motorsports, Finnish driving champions Keke Rosberg, Mika Hakkinen and Kimi Raikkonen have ensured their country’s place in the annals of Formula One racing. Finland also remains the most successful nation in the World Rally Championship in terms of the number of their citizens who have won the endurance car chase.

Their days of Olympic glory behind, the Finns nevertheless seem perfectly content pursuing non-traditional games and elevating them to serious tournaments. Most importantly, it’s the spirit of athleticism and competition, regardless of its form, that has remained ingrained among these hardy northern Europeans.

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