We are the champions

25 March 2011 | Prose

Heroes are still in demand, in sports at least. In his new book author Tuomas Kyrö examines the glorious past and the slightly less glorious present of Finnish sports – as well as the meaning of sports in the contemporary world where it is ‘indispensable for the preservation of nation states’. And he poses a knotty question: what is the difference, in the end, between sports and arts? Are they merely two forms of entertainment?

Extracts from Urheilukirja (‘The book about sports’, WSOY, 2011; see also Mielensäpahoittaja [‘Taking offence’])

The whole idea of Finland has been sold to us based on Hannes Kolehmainen ‘running Finland onto the world map’. [c. 1912–1922; four Olympic gold medals]. Our existence has been defined by how we are known abroad. Sport, [the Nobel Prize -winning author] F. E. Sillanpää, forestry, [Ms Universe] Armi Kuusela, [another runner] Lasse Viren, Nokia, [rock bands] HIM and Lordi, Martti Ahtisaari.

The purpose of sport at the grass-roots level has been to tend to the health of the nation and at a higher level to take our boys out into the world to beat all the other countries’ boys. We may not know how to talk, but our running endurance is all the better for it. However, the most important message was directed inwards, at our self image: we are the best even though we’re poor; we can endure more than the rest. Finnish success during the interwar period projected an image of a healthy, tenacious and competitive nation; political division meant division into good and bad, the right-minded and traitors to the fatherland.

And although the times are completely different, even though ideologies, religions and economic systems have been turned on their heads, we still head off to the Olympics with the same attitude.

The number of high-performance athletes we field becomes smaller by the year, the importance of sport in the life of the individual and society lessens, but the leagues and their leaders live in a bygone era. Before the competitions, official medal goals are set for the youth competing. Great anxiety is experienced in the sport reports when the goals are not met, and in the end, heads are demanded on platters and the best are awarded ceremonial knives [puukko] in honor of their true Finnish grit, their sisu. What other democratic nation honors their athletes with sheath knives? Maybe the Taliban’s Association for Sport and Gymnastics to their most steely-willed headsmen who shoot adulterers at the Kabul football stadium during the Saturday executions.

More and more often the sisu knives are left undistributed and we’re left to wonder where they’re all being collected. Is there a container full of sisu knives down at the harbour? Is there a sisu knife room at the Vierumäki College of Physical Education? Are they going to show up someday in the Bargain Barn discount bin for one-euro-fifty next to the cheap Swedish Mora brand knives?

These days making it into the semi-finals of the European Athletics Championships is regarded as peak performance. After returning home, the coaching staff holds a briefing and a task force outlines changes to the systems and airs their concerns about the misguided attitudes of the younger generation. What the hell is eating kids these days? Why aren’t they spending their childhoods and youths running gravel roads in bad shoes? Development, progress, increasing standards of living – the same things we aim for at the government level in the international growth competition.

Sport is indispensable for the preservation of nation states. Even though the world of snowboarders is a far cry from Hannes Kolehmainen, cross-country skiing and athletics require nationalism in order to retain their interest.

A poor country aching in the wake of civil war [1917], an urgent need to prove to the world that it exists. This is it: to prove to yourself you’re alive. And what better forum for national self-expression than the recently launched Olympic movement and quadrennial Olympic Games?

The boy who ran back and forth to school was recognized in the village games, then in the county games, the civil guard games, the workers’ games. The runner runs because he doesn’t know how to do anything else, or because he wants to get away, to somewhere better, and suddenly finds himself suffering from seasickness on a ship crossing the ocean, on his way to the Olympic 5 and 10. The winner acquires reputation, honour, and brown envelopes. The county thanks him with a building lot, the president invites him to the palace, those who envy him wag their tongues in front of the co-operative store, behind a bottle of Pilsner.

Low population density, long distances, an underdeveloped road network, limited means of transportation. On a rutted dirt road through the forest in bad shoes or bare-footed, in big brother’s breeches. It produces dull-mindedness, bitterness towards the unfairness of life, but at the same time it gives rise unnoticed to terrific underlying physical fitness. A tenacious people with a tendency towards muteness is practically tailor-made for endurance running, where the most important thing isn’t speed but pain tolerance, the acceptance of suffering and growing above it.

Endurance running lacks the celebrating and brashness of the milers, the joking and bellicosity of ball games. Endurance running is just hanging on. Of course that fitted us. A country one of whose strongest folk hero brands is Paavo of Saarijärvi, the man who scraped by the most miserably in Runeberg the national poet’s poem of the same name: Paavo certainly was tough, tenacious – he lived on tree bark! He must have looked like a 10,000 metre runner too.

We are drudges, not epicureans. We endure, we hammer away with ancient weapons; we don’t bound and jump lightly like our western neighbours.

Hannes Kolehmainen created the hype that the others followed and to which Finnish endurance sports are still compared. From the First World War until the next worldwide conflagration, Finland’s 10 000 metre championship race was the year’s stiffest competition at that distance. Back then the Finns were the world’s Kenyans.

An increase in the standard of living always means a decrease in the significance of a nation-state. The better the state discharges its function, the more it deserves respect and recognition, the less we feel we are a part of it. The more the individual has of the material, the less significance is given to all that is immaterial. What do you do with religion, political ideology, or a tradition of endurance running, when your wallet is full, when your 1.7 children have their own rooms, when you have a utility room and a summer cottage? Nothing. Maybe when you’re drinking beer by yourself in your underpants you can check in on them on YouTube. You don’t need vicarious experiences or people to live them through: not runners, not authors, not painters.

Of course they do still have some significance, as entertainment. Just like Abba or Donald Duck, theatre directors have their place to try to create their syntheses, to startle and be significant, remaining, however, within their own spheres, shocking their own middle-class audiences. The national football squad and the national hockey team still have significance, but only enough for the moment they are playing and the next day’s tabloid headlines.

Our own self-respect drives right on by national self-respect. Independence means a sufficient amount of money, not some misanthrope running bloody fast on a cinder track. It isn’t a matter of things having been better or worse before – it’s a matter of prevailing conditions. It will change again when times get worse.

A bearded skier crosses the finish line on the television. Two results are displayed on the screen. I don’t understand the difference between the numbers, which look the same; I’m in kindergarten; six is nine is six. Two voices are commenting on what is happening—one voice explaining the events, the other shouting in the background: ‘AI AI AI AI…’ I understand that something is badly amiss. Then the other in a calm voice: ‘First they ski 15 kilometres and one is one one-hundredth better. This is truly depressing.’

Sports commentator Pentti Salmi’s cry was the cry of a person who had lost everything. It expressed a concentrated mixture of injustice and pure beastly wrongness. It contained an accusation: there has been the cold, the hunger, the wars and the impossible geopolitical location, but still you had to lay this on us? Nothing will make things worse than this, or if it does get worse then the grasshoppers will have to be the size of seagulls and the floods such oceans that the cities are turned to dust. It was a cry of terror. It was Colonel Kurtz’s whisper: ‘The horror… the horror…’

Juha Mieto had lost the Olympic gold to Thomas Wassberg by one one-hundredth of a second in the 15 km cross-country ski race at the Lake Placid Olympics. My childhood had officially ended. I was six years old and my head had been clobbered with a sledgehammer with the fact that no matter how well you do, even if you might be or really are just as good as the best in the world, you’re a loser. A pointless, no-account waste of space. They might extend the brightest crown, but behind their back is one of thorns.

In my mind Juha Mieto was comparable to the gods wielding their hammers and lightnings. His skiing suit had been manufactured in the same factory as the super heroes’ tights. Juha Mielto was the god of the Old Testament, Thor, Zeus and Superman all in the same package. When Mieto was let loose, the very earth trembled, the gravel sparked and the frozen ground around him melted. Juha Mieto was a bear. Juha Mieto was as beautiful as such an ugly man can be. Juha Mieto was a unflinching hero who, yes, had lost before, but before the beginning of my own chronology. My memory more or less covered a year backwards and my understanding one year forwards.

Juha Mieto was supposed to return from these games a victor, and I would be sitting on my grandfather’s shoulders at the airport receiving the hero with hundreds and thousands of other shoulder sitters.

At first the man who had lost the skiing competition by one hundredth of a second felt like a traitor. No one misses by a blink like that other than on purpose. Either he’s stupid or lazy, or both. To a six year old, Olympic gold was the highest glorification of human performance, achievement, esteem and nobility, and Olympic gold was lost generously or won narrowly, but not like this. Why didn’t Mieto pump one stroke harder? Why didn’t he crouch lower down the hills? Why didn’t he climb the climbs harder? Why didn’t he grow his beard longer and push it out over the finish line? Why didn’t he cut his beard shorter and thereby reduce his wind resistance? And who did Juha Mieto lose to? A Swedish clone of himself. If a six year old knew something about international politics and about sport as its sub-branch, it was that you always lose to Russia and you are never allowed to lose to Sweden. Regardless of that, the western big brother did to his little brother what he would come to do year after year: chastise him good naturedly, without bitterness, without distress and without the binding legacy of the dead war heroes riding on his shoulders. With a smile on his lips, he wiped the medal table with his little brother, taking pleasure in his accomplishment, in the moment, in the competition, without fear of defeat.

Why? In order to make the smaller one walk over him one day. But it won’t work, we don’t know how, and more than anything we don’t dare. Give us the smallest possible margin, and we will use it. To lose.

Accusations were followed by guilt. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t care about the Duckburg sociodrama. The invasion of Normandy the other little boys and I carried out from the ditch into the Virtanens’ back yard felt like work, not play. Six-year-old me seriously considered how the bear god, who had held up the world with his poles, would endure his defeat. The higher you fall from, the worse it hurts, and there wasn’t anywhere farther to fall from than that.

In this the child feared for the weakness of his elder, wanting to carry the burden himself so the strong would not become weak, so that he himself could still be weak. So Juha Mieto would not give up competition and succumb to drink or hang himself. So Juha Mieto would not become a TV host, a singer, or a member of parliament and spoil everything that had made him great. [He became a member of parliament in 2007.]

I tried denial. The next Olympics would be in four years – this was sport, no more serious than children’s play. But goddamn it, play was my work and my life, so nothing was more serious than that! Four years would be a lifetime; then Juha Mieto would be too old, a retired superbear. The world’s oldest teddy bear.

I tried the form of active therapy preferred by the Finnish people: forgetting. But that which is denied during the day must be seen to at night. In my dreams I was Juha Mieto. The clock ticked, I couldn’t move forward, the clock ticked, my beard wouldn’t grow, the clock ticked, a bushy-bearded, child Wassberg my size and my age skied past me in yellow and blue.

If the baskets were removed from a basketball game, if the movements of one single player  were left behind, if the stadium went silent and the lights were focused differently, if a symphony orchestra or contemporary electronic music were introduced in the background, we would be witnessing dance instead of a sporting event. If we were to forget that the players come from slums and college sports programs and not from a St Petersburg ballet academy, if we were to forget that they are fighting for the NBA championship, we would be looking at a human interpretation of… something. We would interpret the meaning content, we would invent meaning for it, and the players would be hailed as artists.

If the goals were removed from a hockey match, the puck and the movements of the five players and their meetings on the ice were left, what would it be? What is a body check without a purpose? An act of violence or a game? Jackass’s and the Dudesons’s stock and trade? Successful feints, a goal and a goal celebration? A dance? If a recording of a footballer is removed from its context, if a healthy young man is left gyrating alone on the pitch, what would it be? Performance art? What is a free kick wall of genital shielding without the free kick, the turning of their backs, the jumping up? Mimicry or comedy? Benny Hill or Monty Python? If we take the hammer and the national emblems away from the hammer thrower, if we look at a great naked man spinning in a cage without a hammer, what would we think? A lunatic? A dancer? A clown? A human drill?

If the goal-orientation and competition were to be removed from sport, would it be dance or comedy? Is it the goal-orientation that makes it serious? Is it keeping score that removes the artistic dimension? Does measurability give rise to unidimensionality? Is dance more developed than sport or its primitive form? Which came first, sport or art? Which gave birth to which, and what is the place of play? Is dance foreplay? Is sport intercourse?

I don’t know. But there is a guess, a belief: competition, dance, theatre, visual art, motor sport, literature, ball games, individual events, video installations. They are play. Immaterial and illogical action, very close to nonsense. But to those who do them perfectly significant, to the viewers faith and meaning, as well as doubt and wonder. The viewer gets to decide if the game has any influence, if some team feels like his own or if he wants to understand modern art or if he choose Jokers vs. HIFK.

Completely pointless, bloody damn important.

Translated by Owen Witesman

 

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