Per capita, Finland is still among the most successful Olympic nations. However, the days are long gone when Finland took home bucketloads of medals from the Olympics. Nowadays, we mostly see Finnish motor racers and ice hockey players in the headlines. Finland is also one of the leading countries in the world in general fitness training.
As an independent state, Finland started to make itself known in various ways. During the interwar era, sports was an important way of increasing the international visibility of the country. Between 1912 and 1936, the Finnish team won 142 (50-45-47) medals in the Summer Olympic Games and 24 medals in the Winter Games.
Finland was one of the most successful countries in the Summer Olympics. Per capita, it was the most successful nation of all. In athletics, Finland was able to challenge even the United States in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Long-distance running, javelin and wrestling were among the most successful Olympic sports for Finnish athletes. In Winter Games, Norway was in a class of its own.
The brightest Finnish star in the Olympic Games was Paavo Nurmi, who won nine gold and three silver medals between 1920 and 1928. He even received fan mail addressed to “Nurmiland”. The Finns felt that their little nation was a superpower when it came to sports.
The nation’s Olympic dream
Helsinki filed for the 1940 Games which, however, were awarded to Tokyo by the International Olympic Committee. After the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, Tokyo had to abandon its plans. Helsinki accepted the offer to host the Games. The new Olympic Stadium was half finished. The arrangements for the Games progressed rapidly and the city was ready to receive the Olympic guests in 1940. However, the Second World War broke out and the Games had to be canceled.
After the Second World War, Helsinki filed for the Olympic Games again. The IOC awarded the Games to Helsinki in June 1947. Some members expressed doubts, however, that the country could be occupied by the Soviet Union before the Games.
The USSR team participated in the Olympic Games for the first time in Helsinki. It and the US team competed hard to become the best team in the Games. The US team won by a narrow margin.
The Games were a success for Finland in the midst of the Cold War. Finland wanted to be seen as a bridge-builder between the East and the West. The Helsinki Games were the largest ever held by then. Finland declared that these were “the last real Olympics” where sports took centre stage.
Finland’s Summer Olympic successes began to dwindle after the Helsinki Games. The number of medals won in athletics and wrestling no longer was what it used to be. Finnish long-distance running made a comeback in the 1970s when Lasse Virén won four Olympic gold medals in Munich 1972 and Montreal 1976. Pertti Karppinen won three consecutive Olympic gold medals in rowing in 1976–1984.
In Winter Games, the Finnish athletes’ success did not fluctuate quite as drastically. Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi (née Hämäläinen) won three gold medals in Sarajevo. Ski jumping became a Finnish success story in the 1950s. Matti Nykänen has been one of the brightest Winter Games stars. Among other wins, he took four Olympic gold medals in 1984 and 1988.
The nation exercises
Until the mid-20th century, Finland was an agrarian country where people mainly worked manually. Urbanisation accelerated in the 1950s, when suburbs began to grow around cities. At the same time, work became less physically strenuous. Sitting in the car increased in the 1960s. Leisure time increased significantly when the working week was shortened to five days in the late 1960s.
At the same time, the incidence of cardiovascular diseases increased due to higher living standards, reduced physical activity and prolonged life expectancy. Concern about the physical condition of the citizens gave rise to the development of a fitness policy.
Physical exercise was initially a male thing. However, women followed suit rapidly. By the end of the 1970s, there were more women than men among active sports enthusiasts. In the 2010s, about one third of Finns take enough exercise from the point of view of their health. About forty per cent exercise occasionally. In respect of public health, the most worrying fact is that one in five Finns are not physically active. In international comparison, however, the people in Finland, as in other Nordic countries, exercise quite a lot.
From the 1960s, the state and especially the municipalities began to allocate significantly more funds to the construction of sports facilities. Since the early 1970s, the main guideline in the sports policy has been to build sports facilities which are suitable for both competitive sports and general physical exercise. This was particularly evident in the construction of public indoor swimming pools. There are more than 200 publicly funded swimming pools in Finland and the entrance fees are relatively low (€5 to €7).
There are also thousands and thousands of kilometres of pedestrian and bicycle paths as well as walking, hiking, running and skiing trails. Many Finns frequently go out in the wild, which is facilitated by the so-called everyman’s right. In Finland, you are allowed to roam freely everywhere in the wild, with the exception of nature conservation areas.
The land of motor sports and ice hockey
In recent decades, the biggest and most internationally recognised Finnish sports achievements have been in motor sports and ice hockey. Three Finns have won the World Championship in Formula One: Keke Rosberg (1982), Mika Häkkinen (1998 and 1999) and Kimi Räikkönen (2007). Seven Finns have won the World Rally Championship title. Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen are both four-time champions.
In ice hockey, Finland has won the world championship title in 1995 and 2011. The brightest Finnish ice hockey stars are Jari Kurri and Teemu Selänne, who made long careers in the NHL. The national volleyball and basketball teams have performed well in the 2000s and 2010s and have made it to the European and World Championship finals.
In football, the best achievement of the Finnish national team is fourth place in the Stockholm Olympic Games in 1912. The most successful Finnish footballer is Jari Litmanen, who made a remarkable career in clubs such as Ajax Amsterdam, FC Barcelona and Liverpool FC.