Sport - Tuesday 20.8.2002
ANNA-STINA NYKÄNEN / Helsingin Sanomat
Deconstructing Janne: too independent for a national sporting hero?
Janne Holmén won the marathon at the European Championships, but waving the flag and listening to the national anthem was less to his liking
By Anna-Stina Nykänen (introduction by William Moore)
First a bit of background for those who need it: Finland was once a veritable breeding ground for quality distance runners.
Between 1500 metres and the marathon, you name it, we won it.
Even before the country declared itself independent, Hannes Kolehmainen swept the board of 5,000 metres, 10,000 metres, and marathon at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912.
Paavo Nurmi should need no introduction to anyone who has even a passing interest in sport; nine Olympic golds, three silver medals,
and more track world records than you can shake a stick at. Nurmi is up there with the all-time superheroes of track and field,
and his contemporary Ville Ritola (five Olympic golds) is not far behind him.
The Finnish national anthem was played to death at the Olympics from 1920 through to 1928, and the lion's share of the medals
came in distance running. One Taisto Mäki would probably also have added his name to the pantheon of distance running greats were it not for the Second World War,
which blighted his chances of Olympic glory to accompany several world records, including (in 1939) becoming the first man
to run 10,000 metres in under 30 minutes.
Although the medals kept coming in assorted colours, there was a bit of a lull after WWII, and the 1960s were a complete washout, before Lasse Viren came along in the 1970s and restored national pride by completing a double double of 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres in Munich
(1972) and Montreal (1976).
Viren rightly got much of the glory, but he was ably assisted by lieutenants such as Juha Väätäinen (double European Champion at 5,000 and 10,000 metres in 1971) and Pekka Vasala, the Olympic 1500 metres winner in Munich.
Since then, things have gone steadily downhill, and the last time a Finnish man actually won a distance race at European Championship,
World Championship, or Olympic level was Martti Vainio's 10,000 metres victory in the 1978 European Championships in Prague.
Because Vainio then blotted his copybook by testing positive at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, and because another Olympic
medallist Kaarlo Maaninka (silver and bronze in Moscow 1980) confessed to blood-tampering shenanigans after first becoming a born-again Christian,
these recent names are not trumpeted to quite the same extent.
The last twenty years have seen the rise in Finland of new and less "traditional" sports, such as golf, motor racing, tennis,
and even football, and Finland's athletes have relied for silverware much more on the field side of track and field (in particular
the javelin and shot putt). The glory days of "Flying Finns" in running spikes are a dim memory.
Or they WERE, until Sunday August 12th, when Janne Holmén stepped up to the line in the Munich wind and rain and proceeded to blow away the marathon field in the European Championships.
His achievement was not only a surprise of humungous proportions (Holmén's previous personal best time wouldn't have got him
into the top 20 of the field), but it also prompted the belief that there might be a return to the gold standard for Finnish
runners more used to making up the numbers than actually winning anything.
- The most successful Finnish athlete of all time is none of the above names, illustrious though they may all be. He is one Elmo, and he is the hero of a work of fiction: a satirical 1970s novel by Juhani Peltonen.
In his hour of victory (and they were many, including an epic 100 metres where he fell over and still won), the anti-chauvinist
Elmo did not want to hear the Finnish national anthem played, but rather a gentle Berceuse by composer Armas Järnefelt .
Elmo was a startlingly "different" sporting hero, an apple-growing pacifist and a member of the "Orthodox Atheists", as Peltonen's
hilarious story reveals. The fact that he was adopted by sports fans as a kind of patron saint rather blunted Peltonen's intended
attack on the evils of sports jingoism, but the point was made.
There is more than a bit of Elmo in marathon runner Janne Holmén.
- It is hard to fit Holmén into the mould of the typical Finnish sports hero.
He hails from the Ĺland Islands and is Swedish-speaking, for a start.
He lives in the Swedish university city of Uppsala, and is currently completing work on a doctoral thesis on political history.
As if this were not already enough, he is married to a modern Moroccan woman and has himself converted to Islam. Among his
friends are a number of French and Arab citizens, who refer to him as Ali.
On top of this, 24-year-old Janne is not even a conscientious objector like Elmo was: as a resident of the Ĺland Islands he
is not obliged to take part in military service for his country.
- And yet his running pedigree is right out of the top drawer: he is the son of Nina and Rune Holmén. His mother was European Champion at 3,000 metres in Rome in 1974, and his father was Finnish Champion in the 5,000 metres
This would be an ideal background for a sporting hero, but Janne does not want the role, thank you.
After the medal hubbub died down, Holmén has confessed that when standing on the podium he would much rather have heard some
kind of Janne Holmén song (if such a thing existed) than the strains of Our Land, the Finnish national anthem. He does not wish to see sport and national symbols getting mixed up. Holmén believes that sport
is about individuals competing one against the other.
Janne Holmén has already expressed some regret that he ran a lap of honour draped in the blue-and-white Finnish flag. He wanted
the flag as a mark of respect for the traditions of Finnish distance running, but he definitely does not wish to come across
as some kind of chauvinist zealot.
- Holmén is by no means the first to have suggested the removal of national insignia and symbols from sports events: among previous voices raised in support
of such an idea is that of former President Mauno Koivisto.
And according to Arto Tiihonen of the Finnish Society for Research in Sport and Physical Education there are a number of examples of runner heroes who were
advocates of the individual approach over the national one. "Lasse Viren, too, said at one time that it was he who won the
race, rather than Finland", recalls Tiihonen.
In the wake of Holmén's triumph, Viren (now a Member of Parliament) has naturally been canvassed for his views. He admits
that at the moment immediately after he crossed the line, it was simply his own success that was in his mind. National issues
only rose to the surface with the celebrations that followed.
At the Montreal Olympics in 1976, after winning the 10,000 metres (the third of his four gold medals), Viren waved not a Finnish
flag but his Japanese-made running shoes. He was given a ticking-off for this by the IOC.
- "Viren initiated the line in Finnish sport in which the individual is accentuated rather than the nation as a whole. Despite his achievements, in some
quarters he got pilloried as a footwear mannequin. In the 1970s that kind of individualism could get branded as looking after
number one", observes Tiihonen.
Holmén's individual streak and his reluctance to wave the flag does not fit into this category, says Tiihonen. "There's a
genuine globalist thinking in there, a real internationalism."
Personal experience has taught Janne Holmén to see nationalism in a different light from other Finns, argues Tiihonen. In
Sweden the racism is fiercer than it is here in Finland, and extreme nationalist movements are more prominent. Also, as an
Ĺlander, Holmén has been obliged to ponder the meaning of nationality. Standing up for things Finnish is by no means such
a given in the archipelago (located midway between Finland and Sweden) as it is on the mainland.
"In many sports Finland only ranks as the No.2 country for the islanders. Let's take the new growth sport of floorball, for
instance. If a player doesn't make it into the Swedish leagues, then Finland is a fallback second best. In a lot of disciplines
Sweden is the stronger sporting nation, and many people on Ĺland feel culturally drawn more to Sweden than to the mother country
of Finland", explains Tiihonen.
- For an Ĺland Islander, Holmén has a pretty fair grasp of the Finnish language. He has picked it up from training camps with the Finnish national
squad. Such gatherings necessarily improve one's grasp of language.
Let's not get this wrong - Janne Holmén is not running Finland down, unlike volleyball player Arto Hanni from Ivalo in Lapland, who has recently gone off to ply his trade in the Italian leagues. A couple of days back, Hanni was
quoted in an evening paper as saying that Finland was an oppressive place to be, and that he wasn't planning on ever coming
For Holmén, nationality simply has little or no relevance. He says he is a European and an international person. He has signed
off from extreme national fervour, and Tiihonen sees this as a good thing. Long-distance running has traditionally been regarded
as some kind of national symbol or measure of the Finnish character. "At least the skinheads won't be able to exploit him..."
- All the same, the researcher feels that the runner could wave the Finnish flag without feeling too uncomfortable about it. "There's also such a thing as a positive sense of national
identity. It doesn't necessarily have to have anything to do with violence or putting others down. We can even see, for example,
that within the EU Finland is an ethnic minority", says Tiihonen.
When the big and dominant nations start to exhibit signs of jingoism, then things start getting dangerous, argues Tiihonen.
But for the small countries, a little flag-waving isn't likely to do any real harm.
- It may simply be that by his recent statements Janne Holmén has sought to dampen the ardour of those who would exploit his win.
Already we have heard hopes voiced that the gold medal might be "the start of something"; at the very least that it will mark
a turn for the better in distance running. But what comes out of Munich is no longer necessarily in Holmén's hands. His gold
medal has also already spawned talk of language disputes and of self-government on Ĺland.
Tiihonen can understand particularly well that Holmén is not eager to talk about his religious convictions. This would be
a button to push to get him to comment on such far-removed issues as the terror attacks on the United States or the "honour
killings" of Muslim girls in Sweden.
As Tiihonen sees it, Janne Holmén is quite too smart to allow himself to be dizzied by the whirl of publicity. He is one hero
who will most definitely not lose his head through success on the track. Holmén's quiet cultivation is attractive: "He has
such a realistic image of himself."
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 18.8.2002
- Previously in HS International Edition:
- Finns save best performances for last at European Championships in Athletics (12.8.2002)
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