Finnish elite sports: Proud traditions, new organizational structure and current challenges

February 2, 2019

Finland has a strong historical tradition for elite sports. Since the Olympic debut in 1908, the proud sports nation has won a total of 303 medals at the Summer Olympics, ranking Finland with a modest population of 5.5 million inhabitants as the most winning nation per inhabitants of all 28 Summer Olympics – in front of Hungary, Sweden and Denmark. However, most of the Olympic medals have been won before 1960, ex. Finland at the 1924 Olympic Games won a total of 37 Olympic medals, primarily in athletics and wrestling. This excellent result gave Finland an impressive 2’nd place among 44 nations – after the United States, but ahead of strong sports nations such as Great Britain, France and Italy. From 1960 forwards, however, it has become increasingly difficult for Finnish athletes and teams to win medals at the Summer Olympics and at the last eight Summer Olympics Finland has only won a total of 28 medals. The historical low came at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio with one single bronze medal won by the female boxer Sergiu Toma.Finland has, not least because of climatic conditions with frost and snow more than half of the year, achieved excellent results during decades in international winter sports, such as cross-country skiing, ski jumping, speed skating, Nordic combined, biathlon and ice hockey. Finland has won a total of 167 medals at the Winter Olympics since its debut in 1924 and since the mid-1970’s Finland has won more medals at the Winter Olympics than at the Summer Olympics. The best winter Olympics for Finland were in Sarajevo 1984, when a total of 13 Olympic medals were achieved. Finland has won a total of 77 medals at the last ten Winter Olympics and at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang the Finnish athletes and teams won six medals, including Olympic gold medal by Ilvo Niskanen in “the discipline of the kings” – men’s 50 km cross country skiing.

Finland is one of the world’s strongest ice hockey nations

Finland has strong traditions, both in individual sports and team sports. Especially in men’s volleyball, Finland has in recent years achieved good results at European Championships and World Championships and it is a very realistic target for Finnish volleyball to qualify for the Olympic Games in 2020 or 2024. Also, in the nation sport – ice hockey – Finland has for decades belonged to the best nations, ex. the men’s national team – “The Lions” – won the Olympic silver medals in 2006 and the World Championship in 2011. I am very impressed by the quality of talent development in Finnish ice hockey. Finland has won 3 out of the last 6 World Championship for the U-20 national teams and 2 out of the latest 3 World Championship for U-18 national teams in a competition with strong ice hockey nations such as the United States, Canada, Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, which all have a much larger amount of youth players. The Finnish talent development in ice hockey, both in the clubs and the Finnish Ice Hockey Association, is, in my opinion, among the world’s best in team sports.

Good facilities, but unclear distribution of roles and responsibilities within elite sports

There are far more similarities than differences between sports in Finland and the other Nordic countries. Finland has a diverse network of clubs with many competent coaches and volunteers in many different sports. These conditions combined with high material prosperity and extremely good sports facilities, have been the main reasons why Finland, like the other three Nordic nations, has been among the best sports nations in the world for more than a century, not least in relation to the modest nation’s population. The biggest difference between Finland and the other Nordic countries has been at the organizational level, where up to two years ago, Finland has had a very unmanageable structure with several national sports organizations and an unclear distribution of roles and responsibilities between the various actors, both at national, regional and local level. It has therefore been imperative for the development of Finnish sports to start a comprehensive organizational process of reforms, both within “Sport for all” and elite sports. For this reason, in 2008, the Government set up a working group to prepare a new organizational structure for elite sports in Finland – like Team Denmark in Denmark and Olympiatoppen in Norway. The result was “High Performance Unit” (HPU), which was established in 2013 within the Finnish Olympic Committee (FOC). However, it was not until 2017 that FOC became the only national sports organization in Finland.

Collaboration between “High Performance Unit” and “Research Center for Olympic Sport”

For more than two years I have had a very good collaboration with HPU, which uses my knowledge and experiences from national and international elite sports. We have now formalized the collaboration towards the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and selected a number of topics where the CEO of HPU Mika Lehtimäki and his staff can get my advice and recommendations on how to use their resources – both financial, professional and human – as best as possible. Next week I will be back to Finland to meet with the new CEO Aki Salo and the staff of “Research Center for Olympic Sports” (KIHU). The center, which was established in 1991 in collaboration with University of Jyväskylä, is responsible for HPU’s development and research activities within biological, medical and social sciences. KIHU has recruited 35 professional experts and researchers who advise and guide athletes, coaches and high performence managers in selected sports. It is absolutely crucial to establish and develop well-functioning cooperative relationships between these actors, if Finnish athletes and teams are to participate in the fight for medals in international events. Another important task in next week will be presentations and discussions on optimization of performance with high performance managers and national coaches in the sports with the potential for top 8 rankings at the 2020 Olympic Games. At present, we see the potentials within sailing, wrestling, boxing, shooting, cycling and athletics.

There is no doubt that Finnish elite sports today face a number of major challenges, especially in traditional sports such as athletics, gymnastics and ski jumping. Nobody can live on past results, legends and memories, because the international competition in Olympic sports, both summer and winter sports, is getting tougher and tougher. If the development in Finnish elite sports is to be reversed, it requires patience with the new organizational structure, a clear distribution of roles and responsibilities between the various actors and, last but not least, more economic resources for Finnish elite sports, both from the Finnish government and commercial partners.