Friday, August 17, 2012

The Olympics

The Olympic Games in London are over, and so is our two-week stretch of staying up late every night to watch the competitions. Finland ended the Games with three medals, about as expected. The US, needless to say, did much better (104 medals), with some spectacular wins.

Paavo Nurmi lighting the Olympic fame
in Helsinki, 1952.
It’s a shame Finland didn’t do better. Track and field athletics have historically been a big deal here. Finland still has the all-time record in the number of medals awarded. On a per capita basis, that is. Since the beginning of the modern Games, Finland has won a total of 300 medals (make that 303 now) one for every 18,000 or so inhabitants, beating out second-place Sweden (sweet) to, well, take the gold in medal winning itself.

No one was more responsible for this tradition than the legendary runner Paavo Nurmi, the “Flying Finn” who won a total of nine gold and three silver medals in the 1920s. More recently, Lasse Virén won four golds in the 1970s, most famously in Munich, where he fell badly on the 12th lap of the 10,000 meters race and was still able to overtake the pack to win with a world-record-breaking time.  

This past glory belies the fact that Finland’s track and field prowess has been in decline for some time. The medals this time came mostly from aquatic sports, and I don’t mean swimming. Tuuli Petäjä won the first, a silver in women’s windsurfing, which is especially fitting since her name “Tuuli” means “wind”. How could she not get a medal?

(On a political note, windsurfing is considered an elitist sport in the US, or at least it seemed so when Democratic presidential candidate, avid windsurfer, and really rich guy John Kerry was lambasted by his opponents for engaging in a sport so far removed from the concerns of the common man. At the time, windsurfing was to John Kerry, as dressage is to Mitt Romney today.)

Finland’s other medals (both bronze) came from women’s sailing and men’s javelin. Finland has often been strong in javelin, with stars from the 1980s still household names today. This time there were three Finnish javelin throwers among the 12 finalist. Not bad. In sailing, Finland’s hopes of going for the gold were dashed when too little wind cut short the second-round race against Australia, leaving the three-woman crew to use their Finnish seamanship to take the bronze from the Russians.

The Töölö Rowing Stadium.
At the very beginning of the Games, a few hours before the opening ceremony in London, I went kayaking in particularly glorious Finnish summer weather.

Heading southwest from my kayak club’s boathouse, I thought how apt it was to be paddling past a white structure perched on the shoreline a couple hundred meters to the east. The high, open pavilion sheltering a small grandstand off my port side was the Töölö Rowing Stadium.

These exact waters in Taivallahti bay were the venue for the Olympic canoeing competition in 1952, when Helsinki hosted the Summer Games, an Olympics seeped in more history than most.

Helsinki’s route to hosting the Games was a torturous one. The Finnish capital had come in second place in the completion to hold the 1940 Summer Games, losing out only to Tokyo, Japan. (Talk about some sinister zeitgeist there – the Games, hosted by Nazi Germany in 1936, were to be held next in bellicose imperial Japan.) However, the Japanese invasion of China in 1937, besides being a harbinger of the wider world war to come, ignited a global boycott against holding the Games in Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee then awarded the 1940 Olympics to runner-up Helsinki.

Of course, the geopolitical situation only got worse. Germany invaded Poland, the USSR invaded Finland, world war broke out, and javelin and discus throwing were the furthest things from anyone’s mind. The Games were suspended infinitely. Helsinki would have to wait until 1952 to be selected as host again.

By that time, the athletes who gathered in Helsinki reflected the new world order of the Cold War. Helsinki marked the Olympic debut of not only the Soviet Union, but also Israel and (briefly) the People’s Republic of China. (After that fleeting appearance, Communist China would not participate again until 1984.)

The Helsinki Games, as all Olympics do, also left numerous landmarks around the city. Some are the all-too-common Olympic “white elephants”, like the rowing stadium in Taivallahti, which I’ve seen being used only once, for some kind of outdoor choir practice. 

The 72-meter art deco tower at
Helsinki's Olympic Stadium.
That said, quite a few venues from the 1952 Games are still in use today, most notably the 41,000-seat Olympic Stadium and the nearby open-air swimming center. The stadium is often employed as a concert venue, most recently last Sunday for Madonna. Based on all the disappointing comments I’ve heard about the show, it was not the proudest moment in the stadium’s history.

Recently, I traveled the 100 miles to Tampere to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers perform in that city’s Ratina soccer stadium. To the side of the massive stage where Flea gyrated in a manner worthy of any gymnast, I couldn’t help notice that a lofty cauldron stood above a wall emblazoned with a small set of Olympic rings, reminders of the football preliminaries held here in 1952. In one of these, Italy had beaten the US, 
8-0. Ouch.

Soccer is still far from America’s strong suit when it comes to the Olympics (the US team didn’t even make it to Games this time around). Luckily, we have athletes like Michael “the Flying Fish” Phelps, the biggest medal winner of all time, to make up for such minor deficiencies. 

1 comment:

  1. Viren and Nurmi are still household names around the world (wherever sports are a topic of interest). Amazing fellows.

    I don't care for the modern Olympics. I liked the competitions better when everything was lower key. In fact, the last time I could actually sit down and tolerate watching an Olympics was when it was held in Lillehammer--and that was 1994 (and the winter Olympics)! I just can't get into the whole thing anymore. Part of it is probably that I don't understand (nor take part in) nationalism of any type.