Finland's Sports Phenom

Posted

The most sparsely populated country in Europe has the highest number of Olympic medals per capita in the world.

Finland boasts a summer Olympic medal for every 18,135 inhabitants. Great Britain is at 77k, France at 98k, Germany at 134k and the U.S. at 128k.

Sweden and Norway are closest at 20,046 and 34,427, respectively, placing the Nordic family of nations at the highest podium in the ratio of medals to population.

Add the winter Olympics to the mix and the math is even more skewed in favor of the Scandinavians.

With roughly a quarter of its geography inside the arctic circle, this nation of 5 ½ million people lives in darkness for most of winter. As summer breaks, its light-deprived residents take to the outdoors with a burst of intensity.

A robust northern stock, the Finns are consistently ranked among the most physically active people in Europe. After gaining independence from Russia in 1917, sports also became an important vehicle for building a national identity.

In total, Finland has won 302 medals in the Summer Olympics (101 gold) and 161 in the Winter Olympics (42 gold). In the first half of the 20th century, spanning 9 summer tournaments, the country averaged 21 medals at each Olympics.

Athletics and wrestling comprised most of the country’s accolades. Early running champions like Hannes Kolehmainen and Paavo Nurmi were long-distance record holders known as the “Flying Finns”. In recognition of their achievements, both lit the Olympic Flame at the 1952 games when the quadrennial competitions 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 in three Olympiads- Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam.

Nurmi made a habit of competing with a stop watch and is credited with introducing a pace strategy to long distance running. Later becoming an international celebrity and ambassador of the sport, his analytic approach to racing helped popularize running. 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 that period. Oskar Friman won both lightweight and featherweight, while Vaino Kokkinen won middleweight twice.

But midcentury Finland started to see a decline of its sports phenom. The world started to catch up, especially developing nations with gifted athletes competing in the running disciplines.

With the exception of Lasse Viren’s gold-winning performance in the 5,000m and 10,000m races at the 1972 and 1976 games, the country watched its illustrious history of athleticism steadily fade into memory.

In the last 60 years, Finland averaged under 6 medals at each Olympics. The country hit its low point at the 2016 competitions in Rio, taking home just a single bronze in women’s lightweight boxing.

These days, the Finns seem to be content chasing recreational activities and quirky summer festivals like “swamp soccer” tournaments and “wife-carrying” races. Anything to enjoy those cherished sunlight hours.

Comments

No comments on this story | Please log in to comment by clicking here
Please log in or register to add your comment

Shop For Our Books & DVD's

WEEKLY SPORTS PUZZLE

View larger Puzzle archive


THIS WEEK

10 years ago

SPECIAL OLYMPICS  August 11, 2009  Eunice Shriver, sister of former President John F. Kennedy and founder of the Special Olympics, dies the age of 88. Shriver was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984 for founding a sports organization dedicated to persons with physical and intellectual disabilities. The Special Olympics today serves 5 million athletes around the world.

20 years ago

SOCCER  August 3, 1999  French striker Thierry Henry joins Arsenal FC after a brief stint with Juventus. Henry became Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer with 218 goals and two FA Cups. He was a member of France’s 1998 World Cup winning team and the 2006 runner-up squad that lost to Italy in a penalty shoot-out. One of the greatest attackers in the game, Henry also played for Barcelona and NY Red Bulls.

30 years ago

MOTOR RACING  August 3, 1989  Formula One racer, Jules Bianchi, is born in Nice, France. Making his debut in 2013 as a driver for Marussia, he finished 15th in his opening race at the Australian Grand Prix. Only a year later, the young driver would crash at the Japanese Grand Prix and remain comatose until his death in July, 2015. His F1 fatality was the first since Ayrton Senna perished 21 years earlier.

40 years ago

GOLF  August 3, 1979  Sam Snead becomes the oldest player at 67 to make the cut at the PGA Championship. The three-time champion who had won in 1942, 1949 and 1951 finished 42nd with a score of 288 (+8). Australian David Graham claimed the event, firing 272 (-8). Snead continued playing until 1987 when he retired with 82 PGA Tour victories, including seven majors: 3 Masters, 3 PGA’s and 1 Open.