Top Sport and Keeping Fit in Finland

Readers should take a look at the sporting world. What was a “nice to watch on a wet Saturday afternoon”, back in the old days, has become a huge corporate business that brings billions to “Sports Associations”, media companies and owners, and a few hundred highly paid star players.

The huge majority of sports folk who aspire to become competitive athletes receive a pittance or must pay for the coaches and time spent getting into condition. This has always been the case, even though some a few lucky ones manage to receive some sponsors and scholarships. They never get salaries or pension security…

This would not be worth commenting on but for the fact that big sport is able to attract these billions of revenues when so little goes to those aspiring athletes. But all is not lost… read on, and see at the end of this column how Finland is now tackling these challenges from the grass roots up.

Sport has become big business

Sport in all of its many forms has always been important in Finland. The success of top athletes has been a source of national pride and brand, that has encouraged young and old to participate in the athletic arenas, on the ski slopes, in the countryside and forests. We have famous runners, jumpers, skiers, swimmers, etc… like in any other country for both men and women.

However, this last few years, we have seen a big fall in top results from many of the national teams, and this is especially true of field athletics and skiing – two areas held in special regard by sports fans here.

Explanations have been made and sports associations have cried out for more money and resources. Compared to the other Nordic countries both funding and benefits for athletes are lower. However, Finland managed to secure many gold, silver and bronze medals for decades with much less cash and resources… so what can explain this fall in recent performance?

Nobody has blamed the quality of the athletes – they are the same hard-working dedicated folk who we always enjoy cheering on.

New leadership is needed plus more resources

A few leading Finnish athletes have spoken out in a proactive manner on these questions. They have claimed that the various sports associations have not been sufficiently responsive to the real needs of the athletes. Coaching and psychological support is not always available when needed. Assistance with medical matters has been patchy. Travel arrangements are poorly managed and far from optimal. Many athletes miss out on significant pension benefits and receive no regular salaries.

It is not easy to come forward and challenge these sports associations. They are filled with men who hold senior positions in business and in politics, while others are former athletes or coaches who enjoy senior salaried positions in the associations. These are not the types that take feedback easily, positive or negative, from young athletes. Their natural reaction may be to speak out in the media and claim the high ground. They may raise defenses more quickly rather than listening quietly to the proposals made by the athletes.

Sport is also of great interest for politicians because they can always get front row seats at the “Finals” and they know that sport is great way to win over voter popularity, especially with all the current media coverage. You cannot believe the length of recent reports on sports by political decision makers and the lobbies – here are some recent examples (sorry this is all in Finnish for Finns):

  1. Liikuntapoliittinen selonteko:
  2. NOC’s CEO Mikko Salonen says 30M€ more for sports would be enough in 2020s
  3. LIITU -findings from early 2019 a news clip regarding it:

You can easily spend an hour or two reading through all this stuff which can easily be summarised onto one page…

… and poor athletic performance is a great time for the sport’s corporate lobby to come out of their corner to demand more public support. Politicians are tempted to go along with them and give a few more millions. Who will notice when the total budget is more than €40 billion?

This is the point when the media should speak up… but they do not, because sport sells newspapers and TV time well.

Taxpayers’ support for sport should be sufficient for what is needed and not what the lobby demands. But money needs to be channeled to where it is needed for athletes and coaches and not for the associations to spend on unnecessary travel and other costs.

We have seen that the International Olympic organisation is totally removed from athletics and corruption has been see at the highest levels. National Olympic organizations have reflected the same lack of concern for the spirit of sport. TV deals, with the likes of McDonalds and Coca-Cola are a farce. The spiraling costs of venues are absurd. Ticket prices and ticket sales practices are outrageous. The politics of sport is unacceptable and unnecessary! It is time for a reboot to basic values.

But all is not lost in spite of the above…

New and better leadership is coming

Sporting people in Finland have been listening to these matters and new elections at the Finnish Sports Association led to the appointment of Mr. Sami Itani, pictured here above.

Your correspondent interviewed him recently, and he spoke of the need to have gender equality at the top of these associations – he meant it, because all they have decided to ensure gender equality for all top council and board positions.

He spoke about transparency, and he meant it.

He has decreed that all board meetings decisions are to be published, excluding those matters that must be kept secret by law. SUL’s press releases after first board meetings from 2019 are here (sorry this is all in Finnish for Finns):

He has also planning to restructure training centres to concentrate them in fewer bigger centres allowing them to offer better services in one place rather than having tiny centres spread around the country.

He has been listening to ideas about modest salaries and pensions for top athletes who have no other means of support.

He is also mentioned that sports for young people should see much more support at schools because that is important for healthy development and social skills…

… and finally, he is listening to the athletes…

So because of these new efforts, which are big changes inside the Finnish Sports Association, we can probably look forward to improved results in the coming competitions.


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