For weird­ness, Fin­land is a win­ner

Miami Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

“You can say you’re world cham­pi­ons of swamp soc­cer,” said Matti Paulavaara, 34, one of the team mem­bers, af­ter a con­tem­pla­tive pause. “How many can say that?”

The ge­n­e­sis of swamp soc­cer was in 1998, when cre­ative town of­fi­cials in Hyrynsalmi cooked up a fes­ti­val-like event that would make use of the area’s vast swamp­lands. Thir­teen teams showed up for the first tour­na­ment. Since then, the com­pet­i­tive field has grown to about 200 teams.

The re­cent matches — six-on-six, with 10-minute halves — were played on 20 fields of vary­ing squishi­ness, spread out over 50 acres of swamp. Fin­nish rock echoed through the woods.

Peo­ple strid­ing on seem­ingly firm ground would dis­ap­pear sud­denly into the soft earth, as if descend­ing a stair­way. Some tot­tered on their hands and knees, like ba­bies. Oth­ers stood still, un­til they were waist-deep in muck. The scores were gen­er­ally low. Many of the play­ers were drunk.

It’s hard to imag­ine an uglier ver­sion of the Beau­ti­ful Game.

“You play, you lose, you win — no one cares,” said Sami Korho­nen, 25, of Ka­jaani, who was play­ing in the tour­na­ment for the ninth time. “The whole game is so tough, you’re to­tally wiped out when you’re done.”

This streak of stren­u­ous ir­rev­er­ence be­gan sweep­ing through the quiet Fin­nish coun­try­side in the mid-1990s, and has only grown since.

In 1995, a Finn named Henri Pel­lon­paa killed a world-record 21 bugs in five min­utes at the Mos­quito Killing World Cham­pi­onships in Pelkosen­niemi.

The World Sauna Cham­pi­onships were heav­ily con­tested in Heinola from 19992010, un­til a com­peti­tor died from third-de­gree burns.

More re­cently, thou­sands of Finns, most of them teenage girls, have taken up com­pet­i­tive hob­by­hors­ing, wherein com­peti­tors trot and hur­dle ob­sta­cles while rid­ing the wooden toys.

How did this hap­pen? How did Fin­land be­come such fer­tile ground for wacky sports?

There’s no sim­ple an­swer, but Finns of­fer var­i­ous deep-seated fac­tors, in­clud­ing an en­thu­si­as­ti­cally out­doorsy pop­u­lace (that goes slightly stir-crazy dur­ing the re­gion’s op­pres­sively dark win­ter months), wide­spread pub­lic ac­cess to recre­ational spa­ces, and a con­tin­u­ing re­lax­ation of the tra­di­tion­ally re­served na­tional char­ac­ter. (Also, al­co­hol.)

Fin­land is the most thinly pop­u­lated coun­try in the Euro­pean Union. It boasts end­less forests and al­most 200,000 lakes, and its res­i­dents en­joy “Every­man rights,” which guar­an­tee pub­lic ac­cess to most out­door lands and bod­ies of wa­ter for recre­ational pur­poses. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion con­sis­tently ranks Finns as among the most phys­i­cally ac­tive peo­ple on the con­ti­nent.

“We’re like a for­est peo­ple,” said Lassi Hurskainen, 30, a for­mer pro­fes­sional goal­keeper from Joen­suu, who vis­ited the swamp soc­cer tour­na­ment while host­ing a seg­ment for a Fin­nish sports tele­vi­sion show. “So we come up with games that re­late to na­ture.”

Strad­dling the Arc­tic Cir­cle, Fin­land en­dures long, pun­ish­ingly dark win­ters. Sum­mer there­fore marks a pe­riod of na­tional cathar­sis. It helps that the coun­try has an es­ti­mated 500,000 sum­mer cot­tages, and be­cause many Finns re­ceive up to six weeks of va­ca­tion time per year, the act of un­hur­riedly pass­ing time out­doors feels al­most like a na­tional birthright.

There was a time long ago when Fin­land was very se­ri­ous about its sports. Ath­leti­cism and phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity were im­por­tant con­cepts around which the coun­try’s iden­tity was built af­ter it gained in­de­pen­dence from Rus­sia in 1917.

The first half of the 20th cen­tury brought what Pasi Koski, a sports so­ci­ol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of Turku, calls the “golden age of Fin­nish elite sport.” The coun­try won an av­er­age of 24 medals at the Sum­mer Olympic Games from 1908-1948, punch­ing well above its weight in the global arena. Cham­pion run­ners, like Hannes Kolehmainen and Paavo Nurmi, achieved heroic sta­tus.

They em­bod­ied the im­por­tant Fin­nish con­cept of sisu, which loosely trans­lates into some com­bi­na­tion of words like de­ter­mi­na­tion, pa­tience and har­di­ness.

The rest of the world caught up, even­tu­ally. From 1992-2012, Fin­land took home an av­er­age of four medals at the Sum­mer Olympics, and at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, the coun­try won a sin­gle medal: the bronze in women’s lightweight box­ing.

But if the hal­cyon days of elite sports in Fin­land seem like a dis­tant mem­ory, the con­tours of a new, far weirder era of na­tional sports pros­per­ity have taken shape, one that re­flects the wave of in­di­vid­u­al­ism still grow­ing in this young coun­try.

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