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Athletic Relations Between the United States and Finland

Urho Kekkonen

Finnish Minister of Interior

For a Finnish sportsman it is an extremely pleasant task to present a few thoughts on the relations of the United States and Finland in the athletic field.

Finnish sport is founded on an inheritance provided by centuries of national games and trials of strength. But sport as it is now practiced according to international rules gained no foothold in Finland until the beginning of this century. The early years of Finnish field and track athletics, were, however, influenced more by America than by any other country, and it is with this influence that I propose to deal. Despite Finland's close proximity with Sweden, an older athletic country than Finland, America has played a decisive part in the rapid rise of our athletics to the position they have held since the Stockholm Olympics of 1912 and the days of Hannes Kolehmainen up to the present.

It is said that V. Lundström, Finland's pioneer miler, delved into American athletic literature during his running career in 1904-1906, but it was not until Lauri Pihkala, Finland's authority on field and track events, visited the States in 1907 that direct and effectual relations were established. During his visit to the States Pihkala collected material for a very popular athletic guide in the compilation of which he received the assistance of such outstanding figures as J. Sullivan and Lawson Robertson. Then Pihkala paid a second and longer visit to the United States in 1912-1913 and brought back with him, among other things, the system of boys' sports medals, thousands of which are now awarded every year, and also baseball, which has been modified to conform with local conditions. It was through Pihkala that Finland succeeded in utilizing all the knowledge in style and training which long experience has given to American field and track athletics. Since then an important part of Finland's sport has been modelled on that of the United States. Subsequent developments in that country have also been carefully noted here. Of great importance in this respect are the visits to Finland of American athletic teams. The first of these visits occurred when James D. Lightbody, the Olympic champion, competed in Finland in 1910. Kolkka, the historian of Finnish sport, writes of this visit, "the American champion had created confidence in a controlled, sure style". A greater athletic visit occurred after the Stockholm Olympic Gaines of 1912 when an American team, (Duncan, Case, Brundage and Anderson), competed in Finland. Towards the end of the twenties and during the last few years, Finland has had the honor of visits by many of America's leading athletes, among them Kuck, Paddock, Murchison, Bowen, Tolan, Metcalfe, Elray Robinson, Williams, San Romani, Perrin and Melvin Walker - all sportsmen whose names are known the world over.

We have noted how important to our field and track athletics these visits have been. To take an example: at one time Finland suffered from a dearth of good runners in the 800 meters. Robinson came, ran, and taught our boys a style making for courage, speed and victory, and since then Finland's runners in the 800 meters have never looked back.

We have also obtained from the States several Finnish athletes who have served their sporting apprenticeship there. First and foremost of these was William Ritola, the Olympic Champion in 1924 and 1928.

Here on the other side of the Atlantic it is difficult to judge what Finnish athletes have given to America in return. In 1910 William Kolehmainen, elder brother of Hannes Kolehmainen, visited the United States where he successfully competed in professional running competitions. In 1912 Hannes Kolehmainen himself, the hero of the Stockholm Olympic Games, arrived in the States and over a period of eight years set up new American records and won several national championships in medium and long distances. Paavo Nurmi twice visited the States in the twenties, and gave a display of a long distance runner's skill and possibilities. And finally came the visit of the Finnish team to the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. This visit is linked in our memories with a slight feeling of disappointment that Nurmi was barred by the international athletic federation from participating in the Games and from running in the marathon, an event which he undoubtedly would have won. And it must he admitted that had the visit been to any other country than America, the Finnish team would have stayed at home with Nurmi. It considered, however, that the time was then ripe to repay its sporting debts, dating from the days of Sullivan, to America and to the Finns in America who had done so much for their homeland.

In company with many other nations, Finland from an athletic point of view has undoubtedly received more from America than she has given. Our possibilities are too limited to allow us to make a complete return, but no one can deny our sincere wish to repay in some part America's gift to us. We see in the athletic life of the United States a victorious movement of youth, a movement of enormous importance to the physical and moral condition of the nation. In our country too, we are seeking to make of sport a powerful factor in drawing the entire nation to the support of ideals which can be shaken neither by political nor by economic fluctuations. The health of a nation, and attempts to improve that health, are of value under all circumstances. Sport is one of the roads which lead to that goal, and it is a road which rich and poor may follow side by side.

Published in Finland-United States 1938. Special publication for the advancement of Finnish-American relations. 1938, p. 65-66 & 68-69.

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