A great city for fitness freaks
Finland's reputation as a great sporting country was built on splendid success in the bygone amateur era, when this small country scooped more than four hundred Olympic medals. Nine golds were won by Paavo Nurmi, who also set world records almost as a matter of routine. One of the places where he did so was the old Eläintarha athletics field, which is still a place of pilgrimage for those interested in the history of sport.
The nearby Olympic Stadium was built for the 1940 games, which never took place owing to the outbreak of war. Helsinki had to wait until 1952 to host its Olympiad, which many believe to have been the last one that took place in the true spirit of Baron Pierre de Coubertin.
Several major international sports competitions have been held in Helsinki in recent decades, such as the first world championships in track and field in 1983, the European championships in 1971 and 1994. The European speed-skating championships were held in 1998 and the ice hockey world championships in 1997. The huge Hartwall Areena indoor stadium will be the venue for world championships in both figure skating and aerobics in 1999. Helsinki has hosted major figure skating tournaments on three earlier occasions. The European swimming championships are on the programme for 2000. The city is even becoming a force to be reckoned with in soccer, a sport in which Finland has not done all that well up to now. All that changed in autumn 1998 when the city's pride and joy HJK scored a major upset by beating Portugal's legendary Benfica in the European Champions League and holding Germany's feared Kaiserslautern to a draw. A new roofed soccer field is under construction next door to the Olympic Stadium.
"Our reputation as a competent organiser of big sports events is founded on Finnish sports culture, in which voluntary work places a big part," says Anssi Rauramo, who heads the city Sports Department. "We can always find people who do a good job for free. Sports clubs do the groundwork and the machinery to handle big games is always ready and waiting." The work that sports clubs do to train juniors is likewise on a voluntary basis. As a former star basketball player, Rauramo himself trains juniors early in the morning, before his working days begins. Without pay, naturally.
In addition to top-level competitive sports, Helsinki offers both residents and visitors an impressive range of amenities for physical exercise. There are several indoor swimming pools and in summer bathers can use the large Swimming Stadium and numerous beaches. Indoor tennis and squash courts are dotted all over the city. Right in the centre is the enormous Kisahalli complex, which caters for around thirty disciplines from weightlifting to basketball. For joggers and skiers, the city is absolutely ideal. A large central park extends northwards from the centre to the city limits. "You can come across hares and elk there, in a forest in the city centre," says Rauramo.
A recent British survey (the COMPASS project) examined the extent to which people in Finland, Sweden, Ireland, the UK, Belgium, France and Italy practised physical exercise. It showed that Finland was number one in all age categories.