Finland's Sports Phenom

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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.

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