Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Finland and the Olympics

The London 2012 Olympic games have now come to a close. These were the most successful Olympics for Britain ever, but how were they for Finland?

Time to indulge in some stats and some gratuitous speculation.

After just over two weeks of competition, Team GB finished 3rd in the medals table with 65 medals, including 29 gold. The Brits were particularly outstanding at so-called sitting-down sports: 35 medals (54% of the total) were won in canoeing, cycling, riding horses, rowing and sailing – and that's not even counting the pentathlon and triathlon!

Finland in contrast won just 3 medals (a silver and a bronze in sailing, and a bronze in javelin) placing the country in 60th position in the medals' table. That puts Finland just ahead of neighbours Estonia (63rd with 1 silver and 1 bronze), but behind rivals Sweden (37th with 1 gold, 4 silver and 3 bronze), Norway (35th with 2 gold, 1 silver and 1 bronze) and Denmark (29th with 2 golds, 4 silver and 3 bronze).

At the risk of stirring up recent rivalries, I should also point out that Finland's performance is also well below that of New Zealand (15th with 6 gold, 2 silver and 5 bronze).

The Finnish media were not overly impressed (check out for example Helsingin Sanomat and Yle)

Interestingly though, Finland is actually the all-time most successful country per capita in the summer Olympics, both in terms of number of medals, weighted medals haul, and gold medals. Between London 1908 (when Finland first participated in the Olympics) and London 2012, the country has won 302 medals, including 101 gold medals. However, half of those medals were won in the first 6 Olympics Finland participated in, i.e. by the end of the Los Angeles games in 1932. In the last 50 years, since Rome in 1960, Finland has averaged just 5 medals per game (though it did manage 12 in Los Angeles in 1984).

In short, it seems Finland has been under-performing at the summer Olympics in recent decades.

Most striking is the decline in the sports in which Finland has won the most of its medals in the past: athletics and wrestling. Since their first participation, the Finns have won 115 medals in athletics and 83 in wrestling, representing together 2/3 of the medals won by the country. Yet in the last 4 Olympics (since Sydney in 2000), Finland has managed just 3 medals in athletics and 2 in wrestling (out of 13 medals in total, i.e. just over 1/3).

So what has happened? Has the global competition become too tough? Have the Finns lost their interest in summer sports? Have they become couch potatoes, preferring beer and fast-food to exercising? Or is it simply that they have switched their attention to as yet non-Olympic sports, such as wife-carrying or mobile-phone throwing?

Finland, you can't let New Zealand be the better country, can you?


  1. The immediate reason is the poor level of coaching and mental preparation. Practically all of the Finnish athletes underperformed in London compared to their own levels. To some extent, the lack of success is a downward spiral: when there are no celebrity athletes, the kids are not inspired to take up the sport. The traditional athletics have been out of vogue in Finland for ages now. Kids are interested in things like snowboarding, and Finland has done quite well at that.

    Also, the number of medals dropped in the 1950s at a point in history in which the independence of Finland was finally more or less stable and secure. Up to that time, sports had a huge role in building the national identity and in the attempt to get some kind of international recognition for a small, peripheral country. The Summer Olympics were held in Helsinki in 1952, which, on some level, signaled that Finland had arrived (although the games themselves were actually no great international success).

    You could see a similar effect in Estonia after it regained independence in 1991, and in many other newly independent nations.

    1. Those are reallt interesting points, Mikko.

  2. thanks for posting.