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Go Finland Go

Satu Lehtinen


Six Finnish cross-country skiers were caught doping in this year’s Nordic Skiing World Championships. For many Finns, the doping scandal was not only a sign of fallen athletes. It was a wider question of principle. Since the 1920s, the achievements of sports heroes have been the stuff of national identity. With the fallen skiers went the myth of the honest Finn.

Last February, Finland was preparing for a sporting celebration. The Nordic Skiing World Championships in Lahti, Finland, were supposed to be the Championships of all time. Before the games were over, a total of six top Finnish cross-country skiers had been caught using a banned blood plasma expander called Hemohes. An unprecedented media circus began with the first doping news. Journalists took to the streets, asking people how they felt and how they were going to get through this. When the Finnish Ski Association held a press conference, three of the four national Finnish TV channels broadcast the conference live.

The debacle touched all Finns – even those who are not interested in sports. People described their feelings with words like shock, deep sorrow and even depression. Some even wanted to charge the athletes with treason. People wrote letters to the editor, saying that they no longer dare to show their face abroad.

Cross-country skiing is a small sport with traditions in four northern countries. The contenders for top positions are Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. One might think that the doping scandal was not worth all the furore. But why did the six doping cases cause such a big stir?

The myth of the honest Finn

Jaana Hallamaa, a docent in Theological Ethics and Philosophy of Religion, is one of those who find it difficult to understand that you can become a hero by sweating it out on cross-country skiing tracks. She thinks the scandal does not deserve the attention it received. However, the researcher, who specialises in values, says that although it was a minor incident, it symbolised something important. “In Lahti, Finland was to show the world how to combine pure physical power with modern technology. The fact that the physical power was not so pure was a bad blow.”

Seppo Aalto, a professor of Finnish history, says that the worst thing about the doping scandal was not the doping. The worst was that, along with the facade of sports, the myth of the honest Finn came crashing down. “People were most hurt by the dishonesty. Cross-country skiers had been made into the paragons of honest Finns. We’ve been fed an image that we pursue our goals with the right means. That we’re an upright nation, quite different from the bad boys of Southern Europe.”

Jorma Anttila, a researcher of social psychology, is working on a doctoral dissertation on national identity and how people identify themselves as Finns. For his dissertation, he asked Finns what constitutes Finnishness. The characteristics the respondents ranked highest were honesty and being hard-working. “The mental imagery embodying Finnishness relies on agrarian values. They include home, religion and the fatherland. And, of course, the Finnish wilderness. Cross-country skiing was a natural way to move around in the agrarian society. This connects cross-country skiing strongly with Finnishness. Adults who grew up in the country remember skiing to school.”

Although no-one skis to school any more, the World Championships are always followed with keen interest. In many schools, lessons are cancelled and pupils crowd to the gym to watch the games on the television. Even at workplaces, the games are watched while working. Cross-country skiing has had a role in defending Finland. Many remember history book pictures of the heroes of the Winter War, skiing in their white snow camouflage.

Cross-country skiing is a rural tradition. With increasing urbanisation, it has lost ground as a national pastime. Still, three years ago, over 720,000 Finns said they skied regularly. During the worst doping stir, comments by city-dwellers were laced with gloating. Some completely dissociated themselves from sport and demanded that subsidising sports with tax-payers’ money should be stopped. The worst blow was received by the countryside.

“Maybe cross-country skiers have been symbols in the fight against the EU: the Finlander, a mythical hero, will show the world,” Hallamaa muses. She thinks that, for many people, the EU is a symbol of facelessness. Living conditions in rural areas become worse, decisions are made somewhere else, people have no say in things concerning themselves. “Unfortunately real people will not last as heroes, they’ll come down sooner or later, and then the hangover is tremendous.”

An identity gained by cross-country skiing

Sports achievements and heroes have been building material for the Finnish national identity ever since the 1920s. Achievements by athletes did their share to create the idea of an independent and viable nation – among the Finns as well as abroad.

“The young nation used sports deliberately to create an identity for itself and the identity was based on sports practised alone, in particular cross-country skiing and athletics. Cross-country skiing has been a good base: it has been a small sport and the Finns have always done well in it,” Seppo Aalto says.

Jorma Anttila divides the national identity in two: identity to oneself and identity towards others. The latter emphasises showing off to others. Watching sports polarises the difference between us and them. If one’s own team does well, values associated with sports become characteristics associated with the viewers, too. As recently as the 1970s, Finnish sports fans cheered their team in athletics competitions between Finland and Sweden with “Hakkaa päälle Suomen poika, ettei meitä Ruotsi voita” (‘hit ‘em hard, lads, so the Swedes don’t beat us’), reminiscent of a battle cry originating in the Thirty Years’ War. National pride still raises its head when sporting heroes win. For his dissertation, Anttila also asked his respondents when did they feel particularly Finnish. The most common replies were on Independence Day and at sports events.

Some have been quick to predict that a national identity will disappear: post-modern people are individualists. The matter, however, is not so cutand dried. A national identity is supported by strong institutional structures. Aalto reminds us that “the majority of Finns have gone to school in the olden days and they have old values. Those values cannot be erased in a moment.” According to Anttila, there might even be a demand for a national identity in today’s fragmented world. “Finns have a strong sense of being part of a nation. Identifying with Finnishness was high in all age-groups of my survey. What constituted Finnishness varied according to the age-group. The identity of the older generation is more binding spiritually, while the younger generation emphasised material values more. Athletes’ achievements seem to be important to young Finns, too.”

Win or vanish

In addition to clean sports, Finns have entertained another myth: faith in amateur sports. Seppo Aalto says that it is a long time since sports were a noble pursuit. “As early as in the 1920s, the so-called amateurs often were professionals. At least some top athletes received money in secret. And if not money, cheap rents and other fringe benefits.”

In the 1920s, the secret brown envelopes were thin; today, huge sums change hands in sports. Elite sports have become an entertainment industry, made up of television channels, betting and high-earning athletes. When sports become entertainment, it loses its capacity to unite the nation. “What’s the difference between sports entertainment and advertisements?” Aalto asks. “It has become a marketing channel run by professionals. The most important thing is an event devoid of content.”

“When sports begin to operate like a business, this is what we get,” Jorma Anttila says. “Ethics are no longer an integral part of activities aiming purely at profit, wins are sought after by all possible means. It’s win or vanish.”

Whatever happened to values?

Sports have been called a mirror reflecting the values of the society at large. During the doping scandal, many looked in the mirror and did not like what they saw. Numerous newspaper columns and television talk shows expressed concern for Finnish values.

Jaana Hallamaa does not think Finns have become people who pursue victory for any price. “Even the fact that we have hundreds of thousands of people who work without a thought to honour and glory, shows that our values are alive and well. People work for the welfare state, because they feel it’s important.” Hallamaa says pursuing wins is only skin-deep. “It’s more a media problem. The public eye always needs something new, something to be raised above others.”

The Nordic Skiing World Championships in Lahti provided plenty of something new. The media took advantage of the smallest details of the mess – and beat old sales records. The doping scandal also made webzine history. For the first time, the Internet became a source of information above all others as tens of thousands logged on to the net to discover the latest news. The aftermath of the fiasco even reached the University of Helsinki. The University, suffering from a lack of funds, received funding for a professorship in sports law. The Minister of Culture justified the professorship by the increase of issues related to sports legislation in public life. According to the Minister, the World Championships doping scandal re-emphasises the need for expertise in sports legislation.