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Sports and Gymnastics as Part of Immigrant Culture Before World War II

Keijo Virtanen

Translated by Timo Riippa

Early Phase (1900-1920)

The organized athletic activities of Finnish Americans in the first decades of this century got their start through the efforts of recently arrived immigrants who had been involved with athletics in Finland. The first gymnastics societies had started in Finland in the mid 1870s1. The Gymnastics and Athletic League of Finland (SVUL) was founded in 1906 as a central organization for sports clubs2. After the Civil War, the Labor Sports League (TUL) was created in 1919 as the central organization for the labor movement3.

This division in the old country would clearly influence and be reflected in Finnish American sports organization in the 1920s when athletic activity among the immigrants was at its peak. When it came to physical culture, the mutual interaction over the bridge across the Atlantic played quite a central role.

During the early years of this century Finnish American temperance societies had already established gymnastics groups that gave performances at festivals and other immigrant gatherings. At the same time there were also some independent societies which were not affiliated with any organizations. Since the earliest days of the organized labor movement, Socialist chapters established athletic societies as sub-organizations. Later, some congregations also started gymnastics groups4.

The immigrants considered gymnastics to be a natural recreational activity every bit as important as intellectual pursuits. Yet, there was also criticism. Some wondered, "what good does it do for a person to torture the body?" Others questioned the propriety of gymnastics exhibitions which they viewed as "halfnaked men sticking out their butts."5

Nevertheless, gymnastics quickly found a place among the immigrants. At the end of 1911, for example, there were 53 active gymnastics societies within the Finnish Socialist Federation6. Given that there were at this point some 200 socialist chapters in the country, it means that gymnastics activity played a high profile role in one out of every four socialist chapters. In the years before WWI, gymnastics societies practiced in Salomon Ilmonen's words "artistic exercise achieved through fluid bodily movement requiring flexibility and skill."7

In the 1910s the kinds of competitive sports favored in Finland began to increase in popularity among the immigrants. The favorites were track and field and wrestling with gymnastics as the third most important form of physical exercise, a position that it retained during the entire period of immigrant sports activity.8 During this decade many successful athletes moved to the United States, especially long distance runners and wrestlers.9

Numerous athletic societies were founded in the eastern United States, although the farther west one went, the fewer there were. In New York and Massachusetts the organized athletic societies held the first athletic and wresting festival at the end of the 1910s. In 1911 the Eastern Gymnastics and Athletic League was made up of 11 societies whose names reveal the level of interest in physical culture: Kaleva in Brooklyn, Pyrinto (Aspiration) in Coal Center, Riento (Activity) in Newport, Ponnistus (Striving) in Peabody, Pohjola in Cambridge, Toivo (Hope) in Springfield, Reipas (Vigor) in Fitchburg, Karhu (Bear) in Quincy, Into (Enthusiasm) in Gardner, Tarmo (Energy) in Maynard, and Suomi in Worcester. At this point a total of some 400 members belonged to the groups which made up the League.10

From the beginning the Finnish American labor movement took an ideological stand on athletic activities to the extent that the board of directors of a Socialist chapter determined the framework and rules within which the athletic sub-group functioned. The rapid growth of the workers' movement in the decade before WWI resulted in numerous independent athletic societies joining the movement and becoming sub-organizations of Socialist chapters. Party membership, however, was mandatory. In Quincy, for example, the athletic society Hurja (Furious) was expelled from the Eastern Gymnastics and Athletic League because it had not joined the Socialist Party.11 Many athletic societies accepted such political prerequisites because membership opened up the opportunity to enjoy the chapters' facilities and financial support for their activities.

Even though the first two decades of the 20th century can be considered to be the founding period of Finnish American athletic societies, competitive activities also began to increase in popularity. An obvious impetus came with the arrival of Hannes Kolehmainen, who moved to the United States after the 1912 Stockholm Olympics at which he had enjoyed considerable success. He arrived in the US along with his brother William, who was also a noted runner.

On his first American visit Hannes Kolehmainen stayed until 1915, returned for a time to Finland, and then came back to New York, where he married a Finnish American woman. During these years he became known in the American media after winning several significant long distance events. Kolehmainen worked in New York in construction work and returned to Finland before the 1920 Antwerp Olympics.12

Besides Kolehmainen, several other runners and wrestlers from the pre WWI period brought Finland to the attention of the American public.13 This had a double impact on Finnish Americans: first of all it raised interest in athletics within the Finnish American community and secondly it brought attention to their national identity among America's other immigrant groups.

Sports As Politics

At the beginning of the 1920s the Finnish American athletic movement moved into an active phase, yet at the same time it split into two clearly defined camps: the Bourgeois and the Socialist. The founding of the TUL in Finland a few years earlier had already provided an impetus to the split. Before the Civil War, athletic societies which functioned as sub-organizations of Socialist chapters in the U.S. had been able to arrange and participate in all sports events, but from 1920 onward, members of these groups were forbidden from taking part in "outside athletic competitions."14

At the same time a split occurred within the labor movement into the Socialist and Communist camps which resulted in even more division and consequent decline of sports activity in their ranks. Many successful labor athletes moved over into bourgeois (independent) societies in order to continue competing. The division in the labor sports movement division caused atrophy in their competitive activities. In addition to the Socialist and Communists, the Industrial Workers of the World also started their own sports organization in the 1920s.15

By the end of the decade the labor sports societies began to complain about the strict prohibitions on competition. Athletes in many Socialist chapters had hardly any competitive opportunities at all. In 1926 the Socialists decided to allow the athletes in their chapters to once again participate in all events. It was pointed out that athletes for sporting events increased the number of spectators. In addition, it was noticed that athletes in Socialist chapters were increasingly second generation immigrants to whom the ideology in itself no longer carried the same meaning as it had to the previous generation. Sports was now a valued in and for itself.16

When around the same time the Communists and the IWW also dropped the restrictions on competition - at least against each other - the workers sports movement experienced something of a renaissance, at least when compared to the beginning years of the 1920s. Paavo Nurmi's visit to America also helped to ease the earlier restrictions, as did the success of Finnish athletes in general.17 Around 1930 Socialist as well as Communist athletic activity was once again quite brisk. The center of Socialist athletic activity was the East Coast, while the Communists were strongest in the Midwestern states.18

The Runners of the 1920s as Motivators

The 1920s was a golden period for so-called bourgeois or independent athletic societies among the immigrants. In 1920 the Finnish American Gymnastics and Athletics League was founded in Worcester, Mass as a central organization for athletic societies. It kept close contact with Finland's SVUL, which resulted in many Finnish athletes visiting the United States raising the level of enthusiasm even more.19

From the stand point of competitive sports the most successful athletic society in the 1920s became the New York Finnish American Athletic Club (FAAC). It had already been founded in 1901 among the Finland Swedes living in the city. Although in the beginning the organization's most important competitive sport was the ropepull, by the 1920s the group began to concentrate on wrestling.20

Up until 1917 Hannes Kolehmainen represented a New York Irish athletic society primarily for financial reasons, but in 1917 he moved to the FAAC, thus beginning the society's golden age. In a very short time it became one of the most famous athletic societies in the United States. For some time the organization represented a remarkable economic venture since it owned its own building complete with a wrestling arena, dance hall, bowling alley and bar. Finnish Americans enthusiastically supported its activities and many of its members, like Ville Ritola, were famous long distance runners.21

Ritola arrived as an immigrant to America in 1913 but didn't begin his competitive career until 1919 at the age of 23. The 1924 Paris and 1928 Amsterdam Olympics established him as a master of endurance running, winning five gold and three silver medals. He didn't return permanently to Finland until 1971.22

Several other Finnish American athletes also fared well in the Olympic competition. In addition, Paavo Nurmi's tour of the US between December 1924 and May 1925 received an enthusiastic reception from Finnish Americans. Nurmi also received attention from the American media as a result of his extraordinary success. Although he wasn't an immigrant, the Finnish Americans considered him as one of their own. For one thing, the American public tended to view immigrant groups with suspicion following WWI and in the 1920s the government focused its attention on immigration restriction. In such an atmosphere of fear and distrust, Nurmi's success worked to raise the self-esteem of the immigrant. The FAAC made him an honorary member and organized one of the competitions on his tour in Madison Square Garden.23

What was the significance of Nurmi and Finnish American athletic activities in the United States of the 1920s? It is clear that Americans in general preferred athletic events other than track and field and long distance running. They weren't then, nor are they today, of central interest to the American sporting public. Some have pointed out that Finnish athletic achievements didn't give a particularly accurate picture of Finland because they only emphasized physical accomplishment.24 Other researchers have noted that the success of Finnish long distance runners furthered a positive image that stressed such worthy character traits as determination and persistence.25

Of course, these kinds of observations involve considerable conjecture and the subject requires substantial examination. Yet, it is obvious that Finnish Americans viewed and experienced the achievements of the Finnish runners as something significant. And to some extent, Americans also shared this view, because Nurmi received an invitation from President Calvin Coolidge to visit the White House. Nurmi competed in the US again at the end of the decade. After retiring he made yet another goodwill trip to the US in 1940 with Taisto Maki, a long distance runner of the day.26

Long distance running was also appealing from the standpoint of the "American Dream," in which hero worship played such an important part. In 1928 and 1929 a certain promoter came up with the idea of a crosscountry race from Los Angeles to New York. It was estimated that the race would take about two months. There was significant prize money involved. The winner received $25000, second place got $10000 and third place took $2000. A group of Finnish Americans participated both years and John Salo placed second the first year and won the race the second year. Unfortunately, the second year the promoter was unable to redeem the prizes and declared bankruptcy.27

A concrete expression of Finnish American interest in competitive sports in the 1920s can be seen in the fundraising drives which sought to raise travel funds for Finnish American athletes to the Olympic games as representatives for the Finnish contingent. A drive was organized already in time for the 1920 Olympics in New York, the most active center of Finnish American sports.

The fundraising drive was carried out with the help of the Finnish American press, especially the New Yorkin Uutiset. The nearly $10,000 collected paid for the trips of marathon runners Hannes Kolehmainen and Juha Turmikoski as well as wrestler Eino Leino. Similar money raising drives were carried out in 1924 and 1928 for the Olympics, especially for Ville Ritola.28

When the 1932 winter and summer Olympics were held in the United States at Lake Placid and Los Angeles, Finnish Americans once again enthusiastically participated in the preparations. The Depression left its mark on the fundraising, but the sports minded immigrants sought to offer as much help as they could to Finnish athletes. Finnish Americans arranged a collection even for the Berlin Olympics in 1936, although there weren't any Finnish Americans on the Finnish team.29

The Decline of Activity in the 1930s

In the 1930s the sports activities of the immigrant community began a gradual decline as the immigrant generation began to age and the Depression eroded their interests in sports. At the same time, the younger generation began to take an interest in typical American sports like basketball.

From the beginning the athletic and social activities of sports groups had been based largely on competitive, Olympictype sports. When participation and interest began to wane in the 1930s, the hard-pressed societies were forced to reevaluate their purposes and objectives. Thus, the women gymnasts of New York's FAAC started an entirely new society in 1934 (New York's Finnish Women Gymnasts). Its activities were varied and the gymnastics performances raised money for Finnish charities, the United States Red Cross, etc.30

Instead of competitive sports, "bench warming" became the Finnish American sports "activity" of choice in the 1930s. They followed closely the success of the Finns and maintained a continuing connection with Finland, for example, in the form of Olympic fund raisers. When the Olympic Commission announced in 1938 that Finland would host the 1940 Olympics, Finnish Americans were enthusiastically involved in the initial preparations. They collected funds for the construction of the Helsinki stadium31, donated the prize money from the New York cross country race to a sports museum founded in 1938, and New York's Suomi Society sent a memorial plaque to be permanently displayed at the stadium. Copies of The Finnish Sports Paper were constantly sold out.32 When the Olympics were canceled on account of the war, the disappointment among Finnish Americans was obviously great.

Although the sports activities of the labor movement experienced a momentary revival at the end of the 1920s, it also experienced the atrophy of the new decade. The Socialist chapters attempted to defy the challenge of the time by resuscitating wrestling and by bringing basketball into the program. In 1930 their 13 sports societies had some 300 members.33 Likewise, the Communists's Labor Sports Union still dreamed in the 1930s of revived sports activities. They planned to bring Soviet athletes to their games in 1930. But as a result of the Depression, a debate arose in their ranks concerning the appropriateness of continuing a high level of sports activities.34

In general the competitive sports activities of the labor sports groups had more or less withered away by the middle of the decade. The internal schisms within the labor movement no longer in themselves impeded the activity. There were simply too few competitors. On the other hand in Canada the possibilities for the continuation of a relatively busy level of activity continued to be good, since emigration there was at its peak in the 1920s. As the Finnish Canadian immigrant community in the 1950s saw an influx of new immigration from Finland, sports activities continued to play an important part in the cultural activities of the immigrant community, even as they have up to the present day.


For a thirty year period from the beginning of the century to the beginning of the Depression sports competitions and exhibitions played an especially visible role in Finnish American cultural activity. Even more than with other cultural forms, the sports activities of the immigrants established a bond to the old country which peaked every time Finnish athletes toured in America, every four years during Olympic games, and whenever Finnish American athletes and wrestlers successfully represented Finland in international competitions.

The emphasis on competitive sports preserved the tie between the old and new country even into the post World War II period mainly through the efforts of the "armchair" athletes and their fundraising activities. Until recently, the yearly Boston marathon has been a point of interest for Finnish Americans who gathered funds to get Finnish marathoners to participate.

It must be remembered that along side the favorite competitive sports, the sports clubs also arranged smaller scale competitive activities. In addition, gymnastics as an "aesthetic" sport had a continuing place in festival programs. As activity began to decline in the 1930s when there were no longer any top wrestlers or top all-around athletes, the sports interests of Finnish Americans found other avenues, yet always guided by their ethnic origins.

For example, while professional boxing is one of the most popular sports in the United States, at no point were the immigrants ever really interested in boxing, but when a Finnish heavy weight contender, Gunnar Bärlund, achieved fame in the mid 1930s, Finnish Americans became his most loyal supporters.35 Also, the winner of the middle-weight championship at the Berlin Olympics, Sten Suvio, became a professional in the US, but returned to Finland fairly quickly36 so that neither he, nor in the final analysis Bärlund, were able to any longer bolster Finnish American athletic activities.

The 1930s represented a period of change for the Finnish immigrant community which affected everything, including sports. The cessation of immigration speeded up the assimilation of the community to the extent that at the end of the decade the immigrants at best could only remember the good old days, follow the sports interests of their children, and cheer on the sports activities of the old country.


1 Aimo Halila, Suomen Voimistelu- ja Urheiluliiton historia. Ensimmainen osa 1900-1917. Vammala 1960, p. 19.

2 Suomen Voimistelu- ja Urheiluliitto vv. 1906-1926. Ed. Lauri Santala. Helsinki 1926, p. 19.

3 See Hannu Salonen, Amerikansuomalainen urheilutoiminta Yhdysvalloissa 1900-1940, Pro gradu thesis, University of Turku 1978, p. 9.

4 On the founding of societies see Salomon Ilmonen, Amerikan suomalaisten sivistyshistoria II. Hancock 1931, pp. 66-67; Rafael Engelberg, Suomi ja Amerikan suomalaiset. Helsinki 1944, p. 200; Reino Kero, Suuren lannen suomalaiset. Keuruu1976, p. 174; Salonen 1978, p. 17-23.

5 Urheilu-viesti II (Hancock) 1909, pp. 15-16, 33-36.

6 See Salonen 1978, p. 27.

7 Ilmonen 1931, p. 66.

8 Engelberg 1944, p. 200; Kero 1976, p. 174; Salonen 1978, p. 95.

9 Salonen 1978, p. 18.

10 Suomen Urheilulehti (Helsinki) May 23, 1912; see also Salonen 1978, 21-22.

11 Urheilu-viesti II (Hancock) 1910, pp. 11-14.

12 Ilmonen 1931, pp. 72-74; Engelberg 1944, p. 241; Salonen 1978, pp. 32-33.

13 Juhani Paasivirta, Suomen kuva Yhdysvalloissa 1800-luvun lopulta 1960-luvulle. Porvoo 1962, pp. 90-91.

14 For example Raivaaja (Fitchburg) October 11, 1916; May 29, 1920.

15 About these phases see Salonen 1978, pp. 64-70.

16 Raivaaja (Fitchburg) January 24, 1926.

17 See Salonen 1978, pp. 67-70.

18 See Kero 1976, pp. 176-177.

19 Ilmonen 1931, pp. 69-70; Engelberg 1944, pp. 200-201; Salonen 1978, s. 42.

20 Suomen Urheilulehti (Helsinki) December 21, 1931; see also Ilmonen 1931, p. 68; Engelberg 1944, p. 200; Salonen, p. 44.

21 Salonen 1978, s. 44-46.

22 Ilmonen 1931, pp.76-77; Salonen 1978, p. 46; Keijo Virtanen, Settlement or Return.Finnish Emigrants (1860-1930) in the International Overseas Return Migration Movement. Forssa 1979, p. 217.

23 Paavo Karikko - Mauno Koski, Paavo Nurmi. Helsinki 1965, pp. 35-38, 54-66, 72; see also Ilmonen 1931, p. 74-76.

24 Paasivirta 1962, p. 93.

25 See for example Salonen 1978, pp. 57-58.

26 Sulo Kolkka - Helge Hygren, Paavo Nurmi. Keuruu 1974, pp. 66-67; Karkko - Koski 1965, pp. 73, 106, 139-140.

27 Ilmonen 1931, pp. 78-79; Kero 1976, p. 175.

28 See Ilmonen 1931, s. 71-72; Salonen 1978, p. 53-55.

29 For example Suomen Urheilulehti (Helsinki) January 11, 1932, September 12, 1932, September 15, 1932, June 8, 1936; see also Ilmonen 1931, p. 72; Salonen 1978, pp. 86-87.

30 Salonen 1978, p. 84 and the indicated sources.

31 Suomen Urheilulehti (Helsinki) June 9, 1938; New Yorkin Uutiset (Brooklyn) June 21, 1938.

32 Suomen Urheilulehti (Helsinki) April 14, 1939.

33 Raivaaja (Fitchburg) January 24, 1927, January 28, 1930.

34 See Salonen 1978, pp. 92-93.

35 Suomen Urheilulehti (Helsinki) August 31, 1936, May 16, 1938; see specifically Salonen 1978, p 88 and the sources he mentions.

36 Suomen Urheilulehti (Helsinki) February 15, 1937, October 28, 1937.

Published in Finnish Americana, Vol. 11, 1995-1996, p. 4-12.

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