Finnish Athletics Federation and Olympic Committee fail to support Finland’s top athletes

By Kristiina Mäkelä, Olympic athlete (Copyright © 2018: Photo: Sami Vaskola

It is quite obvious what an athlete needs. Training, rest and right kind of nutrition. Quality training requires a skilful coach and good training facilities. The right routines and rhythms are key to optimising athletes’ rest and nutrition, and guidance is also needed in these areas. This is base on which everything is build.

It is easily forgotten that top athletes have been normal kids when they start competing and at some point relatively early in their life, they reach results that made them stars and role models. Results are made through trial and error since there is no school for how to be an top athlete, at least not in Finland…

I like to think that naturally talented kids do things correctly by accident, but it is evident that the time will come, sooner or later, when these kids, teens or young adults need to start making serious efforts to improve their result to reach the top. 

Coaches have a major impact on young athletes. But the relationship between the coach and the athlete has to change and develop especially when moving from youth to adulthood. This is first big weak point for them both. Coaches who have been in charge need to grow with the athlete, and guide more than just talking. Athletes on the other hand need to take lot more responsibility over their actions and start co-operating with their coaches.

Every coach and athlete needs support from the outside. At first it can be the local sports club like Orimattilan Jymy (a small town sports club) was for me. But eventually help is needed from the Sport Federation or Olympic Committee since these are the links to make it to the big championships games and the Olympics. These are also the places where information should be harvested and shared between all athletes, coaches, sport clubs and their teams.

I’m sad to say this, but at the moment the Finnish Athletic Federation is not the kind of organisation that is able to produce medal-winning top athletes. 

Valuable information slips through their hands as you read this and here are the two biggest failures:

  1. There is no system where young promising athletes and their coaches receive the information they need.
  2. Top athletes funding is on unstable ground and shattered so that money is simply wasted. 

I can say this since because I have experienced them and I am still suffering. I hope the matter can now be taken seriously and that there will be action soon to improve matters.

I am often asked what do I need. Firstly I need coaching, training facilities, food and rest. Then I need physiotherapy, massage, medical care and mental coaching. I need information how to sleep and eat correctly, and then I need money for living expenses. Most of all I need time and peace to concentrate on using all this information in my daily life and make it work. This is what every athlete needs!

I had to build a team with my coach to receive all the require information and by doing it I reached international championship-final level. This support did not come from the Athletic Federation or the  Olympic Committee where from it should have come. 

I had no time to research for the right people with the right knowledge, but luckily I ended up having a high quality team. I was amazed that Athletics Federation did not have teams like this ready on their shelves. How could it be possible that I was the first athlete in history to be interested in how athletes need to eat, sleep and see the importance of a mental coach? The Athletics Federation has just simply left this for the athletes to somehow work out, and by doing this they have lost years of valuable information that has washed down the drain.

I cannot highlight enough the fact that the Athletes Federation should be information bank, by collecting, saving and sharing information. This costs very little when done correctly, but is costly when not done. Most athletes face almost the same kind of problems. If there were a system to help us deal with these problems, the time spend worrying and away from training would be much shorter. 

For example if coach walks out and an athlete ends up without a coach, the Athletics Federation could provide a list of possible options. Such a list simply requires interviews and updates – but it does not exist, then… 

The same goes with injuries. There should be a list of specialists, doctors and physiotherapists who have successfully treated various types of injuries. This problems is really hard for an athlete to solve given that they are under all the stress from the injury itself. At the moment you just have to be lucky to meet a person who can advise you to go to the right place.

When matters like this, at the most basic level, are not taken care of, it feels bad to even raise my next subject which is as important. There is no pension security for athletes. If I end my sports career at the age of 30, finish my studies and start working at the age of 33, I lose some really valuable 10 years of my pension compared to other people my age. It appears that athletes are expected to train hard, give up a normal life to represent their country in return for forfeiting not only their pensions but income for that honor!

Athletics can make you famous but it will not make you well-off or even wealthy like football, ice-hockey, basketball, tennis or golf. You learn to live a low-cost frugal life until you get good enough, but still it does not guarantee you a sustainable and stable income. 

Modest funding is promised only one year at a time and doing well one year and suffering an injury the next can mean that your ”salary” is cut in half. This happened to me! After Olympics I attained the highest funding group of €20 000. The next year I suffered a knee injury and had surgery in May. I was still able to rehabilitate myself for the London World Championships in August. I jumped well, but was left out from finals because the standard was high this year. My performance was one of the best among Finnish athletes, but my funding was cut to €10 000.

Big changes like this can be vital if not balanced with other factors. This is where sponsors have very big role. So on top of all the information needed to do sports, an athlete should understand the business of sponsorship. Of course there are managers to help you, if you happened to find good one. This has been the most difficult area for me. 

A vastly changing world makes this even harder, and I know that putting more effort looking for and satisfying my sponsors would allow me to earn more, but the time away from training and athletic life and finding the right balance is not easy. For a single athlete this is even harder since the trend of sponsoring teams or events is the big trend at the moment. I’m sure there are ways to organise spectacular programs to support single athletes but this, yet again, should be planed and arranged from the Athletes Federation.

Treating athletes badly is easy since they are young and inexperienced. That is, unfortunately,  how world works. Sloppy performance inside the organisation has been the norm since athletes have little time or opportunity to demand improvements. 

It is all about the people, and especially the ones who are on the top of organisation, who seem to compete for the top jobs and the glory without caring about the very athletes they are meant to represent. We need specialists to work with athletes and each other. We need long term plans and funding for those plans. We need a top level organisation to produce these top level athletes. We need knowledge and flexibility, but most of all we need change.

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