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Finland´s national shame

Martti Häikiö


Six Finnish top cross-country skiers were caught in the act in the World Champion- ships organised by Lahti, Finland, creating the worst doping scandal in Finnish sports history. It was a time of reckoning not only for sports federations and associations, sponsors of sports clubs or the media, interested in large audiences, but also for many Finns personally: how was it possible that the heroes of ordinary Finns let their supporters and fans down so badly?

The skiers had received plasma expanders intravenously, which is a form of blood manipulation. The crime was premeditated: in addition to the athletes, the Finnish Skiing Federation head coach and two national team doctors knowingly broke the rules – thinking that the performance-enhancing banned substance would not be detected in the tests. To be sure, they were informed that plasma expanders would be tested in Lahti, but chose not to believe it, because the relations with the Finnish Anti-doping Committee were so strained that there was no communication between the bodies.

It was not a question of a weak individual stumbling and falling, it was a question of a large-scale collapse of ethics in top-level cross-country skiing.

The incident has national importance, because cross-country skiing has a special status in the national identity of Finland. Cross-country skiing is a popular winter pastime among large parts of the population. Cross-country skiers are the best-known sports personalities. An incident shocking the whole nation, the doping scandal left behind the previous worst blow to the sporting nation: declaring that the world’s best long-distance runner, Paavo Nurmi, was a professional athlete just before the Los Angeles Olympic Games 70 years ago.

A few years back, Finland experienced another large-scale sports scandal, when it turned out that several games in the league of Finland’s national sport, Finnish baseball, were fixed. Betting was in back of it all: the State-owned gaming company, which has a monopoly, had set fixed odds of over 40 for several games. The teams playing fixed the games, and players, coaches, friends and families placed high bets and collected huge wins. The events have been dragged through the courts ever since and Finnish baseball is facing its worst crisis to date.

The failing ethics of both cross-country skiing and Finnish baseball have been explained by the fact that sports have become commercial entertainment, in which financial values are more important than the sporting ones. It is true that many athletes and sports clubs have become companies, whose financial stakes have been too high for their ethical capacity. However, the commercialisation of sport is a poor explanation, as the business world has its own stated ethical rules, dealing with insider trading has become stricter and the Finnish Competition Authority monitors the adherence to trade rules.

After the cross-country skiing scandal, hardly anyone in Finland believes in the purity and honesty of sports. Athletes and coaches have not been shy to use even forbidden methods to achieve success. Cross-country skiers and Finnish baseball players have been seen as the quintessential honest Finns, and now faith in them has gone. One cannot trust one’s heroes anymore. Recovering from this catastrophe will take a long time.

The cases can be compared to the worst dishonesty in science, that of forging research results. Significant cases have not come to light, at least not publicly. However, there have been several close shaves, when irregularities in science funding have been revealed, when funds intended for a research team or university have been illegally directed to the researchers’ own companies or even their personal bank accounts.

The academic community should not sneer at athletes for falling prey to dishonesty. Science also needs a continuous, open discussion on the significance of honesty. Although it seems trite, even Sunday-schoolish, talking about honesty is the more important the stiffer the competition. Every day, the academic world witnesses the awarding of posts, grants, rewards and honour, the competition for which is increasingly stiff.

Martti Häikiö is Docent of Political History at the University of Helsinki and free lance journalist.