The person who has had the greatest influence on sport in Finland is not, as one might suppose, nine-times Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi, but rather a certain Professor Lauri Pihkala. It was he who developed pesäpallo, which has become Finland's national sport. The first games were played in 1922. Now, three-quarters of a century later, there are around 60,000 organised players, half of them women.
A ball has always been a fascinating item of sports gear. From the 17th century to the present day, the most popular games in Europe have been ball games. Lauri Pihkala studied several that were similar but different and took ideas and elements from them all to develop one of his own. One major source of inspiration was American baseball, as is reflected already in the word pesäpallo, literally "nest ball".
Lauri Pihkala visited the United States and carefully watched baseball games. Original-minded sportsman that he was, he immediately came to the conclusion that the game had serious shortcomings. First of all, the whole thing was very slow to get started. That was because a thrown return ball is hard to hit and the distance to first base is too long. In Finnish baseball, by contrast, the ball can be pitched vertically and the distance to first base is short. It increases progressively as one proceeds through the bases.
Sport can be seen as reflecting the way a society thinks. Sociologists have explained that the field on which American baseball is played is the prairie, a wide open space. Another basic idea is that of a duel between pitcher and batter, one that sums up the basic tension within American society: one of two is always the winner, better. As an idealist and pedagogue with a special interest in young people's development, Lauri Pihkala wanted to create a team game in which one comrade helped another to advance from one base to another. According to the rules of pesäpallo, a player who has gone through all the bases brings a point for the whole team. That is the idea of the game in a nutshell.
When Pihkala was developing pesäpallo, Finland already had plenty of athletics stadiums with grandstands. He decided that the game would have to be playable within the dimensions of such a field. Those length and width figures are still observed, even though in recent years fine stadiums dedicated solely to pesäpallo have been built in many localities.
A good indication of pesäpallo's popularity is the number of spectators it attracts: more than 600,000 watched men's and women's games in 1997 - compared with only about 350,000 for soccer. The more than twenty televised pesäpallo games attracted an audience averaging 250,000 viewers, which is a lot in a country of only five million. Half of the tens of thousands of players belonging to pesäpallo clubs are women. The game suits either sex and can be played by mixed teams. Fields and gear scaled down to suit smaller girls and boys are also available.
The discipline in which Finland is unbeatable
Finnish emigrants have introduced pesäpallo to several parts of the world. It is played in Australia, Germany, Sweden, Estonia - and even on the island of Hokkaido, where all of the players are Japanese! American- and Canadian-Finns also play the game to some extent in summer. Indeed - probably more an amusing curiosity than anything else - world pesäpallo championships have already been arranged twice in Finland. At the last, in Lahti in 1997, the biggest favourite with the crowd was the Australian team's star batter, an Aborigine. But Finland retained the world championship.
The immense growth in the popularity of pesäpallo is a reflection of changing values in Finland. In the sixties and seventies only international phenomena interested young people and pesäpallo fell out of fashion. By contrast, now that supranational trends are all around us, the importance of national values is beginning to be appreciated much more - also in sport. Pesäpallo is part of the Finnish identity, which in this national team game that everyone knows can also assume features of intense local pride. In a country that covers a large geographical area, a small locality with a good team can assume a high profile. Everyone celebrates the winning of a Finnish championship and the champagne flows as generously as with any of the world's great games.
"What matters most, of course, is that pesäpallo is a cleverly designed game," says Markku Pullinen, the Executive Director of the national federation. "It is interesting to watch, because it is a test of intelligence, strength and speed. The game develops at a leisurely pace and then explodes into very fast-moving situations. Finns understand what is going on out on the field. Advice is liberally hurled from the stands and there is no forgiveness for mistakes." On or off the field, no one can equal the Finns in this game.
The game having such an important role in defining their national identity, many Finns had to swallow a bitter pill when allegations were made in autumn 1998 that the results of several league games had probably been manipulated. Months of investigations revealed the unpalatable truth: 4 games had been fixed in August 1998.
Concerned for the reputation of the sport, the leaders of the Pesäpallo federation took decisive action: 68 players received long suspensions, most of them for the next 10 games.