Athletics played a significant part in the lives and culture of the early immigrants of our Finntowns in the United
States and Canada, particularly after the start of the 20th century. Most of the immigrants were working class and
engaged in hard labor all their lives in Finland and here, but they still found the time and energy to develop a culture
of their own which included participatory sports. Many of them had already engaged in athletics in the Old Country
before they came here. After all, most were young when they came. For instance, my father, Antti Siitonen, a baker
by trade, had practiced gymnastics and Greco-Roman wrestling as well as track and field in Finland. One of my few
mementos I have of him is a first place medal he’d won in some small town pentathlon competition.
One of the first organized clubs to be formed in the United States was the Finnish American Athletic Club, founded
in 1901 in New York City. Its founders were a group of rope-pullers, or tug-of-war specialists, from Ahvenenmaa, or
the Aland Islands, who spoke mostly Swedish. But soon gymnastics with specialties like pyramid-building came into
the picture. FAAC became eventually a long-distance running mecca for Finns, particularly in the teens and 20s and
was predominantly Finnish and became one of the top running clubs in New York City. The Kaleva Club was
founded in Brooklyn in 1903.
Alcoholism was rife within the Finnish communities, and while churches and missions tried their best to attract
lonely Finnish young men away from the saloons, success was limited. Thus, Temperance societies were created
among the Finns, which built halls and offered wholesome cultural activities as alternatives to bars and the bottle.
Athletics was a key factor and became a healthy outlet for these restless, energetic young people. Gymnastics as a
non-competitive participatory sport was popular. Most halls had their parallel bars, rings and horses, but aerobics-style movements became prominent. They were a combination of aerobics and parade ground drill formations, and a
unique Finnish-style Tai Chi. Pyramid building with different formations of people climbing and standing on top of
each other to form an apex was an art form in itself. My father had been a pyramid designer. Young women, many
of them maids with Thursday nights off would also come to the halls and take part in the gymnastics.
Wrestling proved to very popular. One of the Temperance hall wrestlers in the Worcester, Mass., area, Vaino
Ketonen, turned professional and was world middleweight wrestling champion from 1918 through 1927. That is,
when wrestling was a legitimate sport, rather than an extravagantly staged floor show.
Splits and schisms seemed to be part and parcel of the history of early Finnish immigrant life, be they religious or political. This happened in the first decade of the 20th century with the rise of Finnish-American socialism, a rising popular current within the working classes of both Finland and North America in the hard economic times they faced. Considerable socialist and labor sentiment arose within the temperance societies as well. When the Finnish Federation of the Socialist Party, USA was founded in 1908, hundreds of Temperance club members left to form Socialist locals. In some cases, whole temperance local groups switched to the socialists. This created considerable bitterness among the more conservative or non-political Temperance folks.
Soon Socialist halls were built, and with other cultural manifestations, athletic clubs were formed. The Socialists, too, wanted wholesome diversions from saloons for restless young Finns. Gymnastics and wrestling were the most popular expressions. The feeling was that a healthy body, mind, and spirit made a happier, productive and enlightened human being. Some more revolutionary elements thought that workers needed to be strong and healthy to hold their own on the barricades whenever that day arrived.
Be that as it may, Socialist athletic clubs sprang up like mushrooms, and leagues were formed with Finnish teams competing against each other, with track & field being added to club menus. The New England states were great sports centers although Finnish labor sports clubs also sprang into being in the Midwest and West Coasts. Many of these clubs had colorful names: “Reipas” (Vigor) of the Labor Society Saima in Fitchburg, Mass., “Karhu”, or Bear, of the Labor Society Veli (or Brother) in Quincy, “Into” (or Enthusiasm) in Gardner, “Tarmo” (or Energy) in Maynard, and my favorite name, “Mullistus” (or Upheaval) in Lanesville. Then there was the more conventional “Suomi” with the Worcester socialists.
Of course, the Temperance people didn’t want to lose their active, athletic members to the Socialists, so they formed their own clubs and leagues. A prominent Temperance athletic club was the “Hurja” (Wild or Furious) of the Uljas Koitto Temperance Society of Quincy, Mass. Then there was the “Kuula” (Shot) of the Sovittaja, Club in the Worcester area. Then there were the independent clubs like the famous FAAC of New York which attracted Finnish Olympic champions to their membership when long distance running became popular among Finns.
My father Antti Siitonen was active in the Karhu of Quincy as a wrestler and gymnast, and his brother August was
also a Karhu wrestler. My father coached the Karhu women in gymnastics techniques, especially on housemaid’s
night off on Thursdays. My mother Hanna Saikkonen, a 1915 arrival from Finland, was working as a maid for the
mayor of Quincy and decided to join the Thursday night class. And that’s how my parents met. They were married in
October, 1917. Among their close friends were Vaino and Anna Tirri. Vaino, a shipyard worker, threw the javelin
on the Karhu track team and became an outstanding athlete in his specialty in New England, competing in the
toiskielisten (non-Finnish) Amateur Athletics Union championship events.
THE COMING OF HANNES
But the track and field and long distance running revolution among Finnish immigrant athletes really exploded with the great victories of Hannes Kolehmainen, representing Finland at the Stockholm Olympics of 1912. The running bricklayer from the Helsingin Jyry (Thunder) Club won the 5000m run setting a new world record, being the first to run the distance in under 15 minutes. He also won the 10,000 meters and the individual cross-country race. In the latter he won the team silver and set another world record in his heat of the team 3000m. Three golds, one silver! Finnish runners were on their way!
Kolehmainen moved to the United States shortly after these Olympics as an immigrant and plied his trade laying bricks. He joined his brother Wiljami in the States who was successful as a professional runner. It was amazing, with long work days, Hannes found time to train and enter in numerous races, competing mostly under the FAAC aegis. Between 1912 and 1916 he won eight U.S. Championships. But he now aimed for the marathon in which he had competed as a young stripling in Finland in 1907. He finished fourth in the 1917 Boston Marathon. There were no Olympics in 1916 because of World War I, but in 1920 in Antwerp, there was Kolehmainen again, to take the marathon and a fourth Olympic gold!
“So if Hannes can do it, why can’t we,” said other immigrant runners. In 1919, another big surprise, the Boston
Marathon. The top three finishers in the 26.2-miler were Finns: Carl Linder of Quincy was the winner, William
Wick was second, and Otto Laakso of Brooklyn, N.Y. was third! Both Linder and Wick were members of the Hurja
Club. On a personal note, at that time, Wick and my Uncle August were the co-proprietors of the Quincy Baking
Company where my father also worked. Linder later competed at the Antwerp Olympics of 1920 and the 1925 Paris
Olympics, as part of the U.S. team with no notable success.
NURMI AT ANTWERP
Kolehmainen wasn’t the only Finnish star at the 1920 Olympics. Jonni Myyra (umlaut a) won a gold in the javelin, and who a year earlier had set a world record. There was also a certain young runner from Turku at Antwerp named Paavo Nurmi who made his Olympic debut. And an auspicious one it was! After earning a silver in the 5000 meters behind France‘s Joseph Guillemot, he came back to nail the Frenchman for a gold in the 10,000 meters. He also won golds in the cross-country race and in the team award for the same race which the Finns took. One of the great sports heroes of all time was now on the map.
When Kolehmainen returned to New York after his Antwerp triumph he told a young FAAC team mate of his named Ville Ritola that if the latter had been at Antwerp: “No doubt you would have won the five and ten quite easily!”
Who was this Ville Ritola? He was another penniless immigrant lad, from Peraseinajoki, Finland who arrived on
American shores in 1913 at age 17. He had ridden freights and worked at unskilled jobs around the country like so
many of his countrymen in those years, before settling down in New York and becoming a carpenter, hanging around
the Finnish IWW hall. He didn’t enter his first road race until 1919, but from then on it was “Look out!” Running
for the FAAC, he won 18 U.S. championships at varying distances between 1921-27, running well to boot on indoor
tracks as well as city street races. In 1922 he was runner-up in the Boston Marathon. He became know as the
“Peraseinajoen Susi” or the “Peraseinajoki Wolf“.
So it was on to the Olympics for Ritola at Paris in 1924 where he and Nurmi met for the first time to write a brilliant chapter in athletic history. In his first race, Ritola won the 10,000 meters by a half-lap and broke his own world record by 12 seconds. The crowd went wild. Thousands of Finnish fans, well-fortified by brew-skis and stronger stuff, demonstrated raucously on the streets of Paris, bellowing out the Pohjanmaa drunken fight song: “Isontalon Antti ja Rannanjarvi”. Ritola didn‘t mind as he was used to the demonstrativeness of American sports fans. But Jonni Myyra, who picked up another Olympic gold at Paris with his soaring javelin, was ashamed. He felt these jubilant fans were an embarrassment to their country with this excessive behavior and should have satisfied themselves with polite applause and a respectful rendition of the Finnish national anthem..
Three days later Ritola won the steeplechase by 75 meters, but then met his come-uppence at the hands of Nurmi. He had to settle for silver behind Nurmi’s gold in the 5000m, and also in the cross-country race, but shared a gold with Nurmi in the team cross-country and in the 3000-m team race. So Ritola came back to New York to the admiration of Finnish-America. Jonni Myyra also moved to the States then and ended up in San Francisco where he worked the rest of his working life as a longshoreman, according to Reino Erkkila, now 93, a long time Local 10 official of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
Nurmi also came to the United States in 1925 as an international sports hero, met President Coolidge and was
greeted by 100,000 fans in an exhibition race at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He ran all over the country running six-seven days a week, winning almost all the races. He and Ritola made a running tour around the United States in a
number of exhibition races. Reino Erkkila remembers seeing them run at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco which
event he attended as a boy with his parents.
PAAVO-VILLE SHOW II
So the Nurmi-Ritola rivalry continued at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. This time, Nurmi bested Ritola in a sensational 10,000 meter race. But in the 5,000 meters Ville turned the tables on Paavo and won over him by 12 meters. Nurmi also silvered in the steeplechase. That was the end of both of their Olympic careers. Their Olympic totals: Nurmi--9 golds 3 silvers; Ritola--5 golds, 3 silvers. A great chapter in Finnish sports history at a height not to be repeated until the great Olympic races of Lasse Viren in 1972 and 1976.
Of course, all this stimulated the growth and the interest of American Finns in track and field and distance running,
with the teens and 1920s the glory years of immigrant athletics here. Second generation Finns also came into the
picture but not in sufficient numbers to sustain the momentum. Baseball, basketball, football, movies and the Model
A Ford started to draw the second generation away from the cultural, athletic and political interests of their parents.
After World War I, the U.S. government put a kibosh on new mass immigration, so the influx of new athletes from
Finland dwindled almost to nothing. But the athletic programs continued at a diminishing scale through the 1930s.
One of my fondest memories as a boy were the annual summer festivals, the Kesajuhlat, at Saima Park in Fitchburg,
Mass., watching the track and field events staged by the Reipas A.C. After all these years, the Kesajuhlat are still
held in Fitchburg, although under politically non-partisan auspices: And the Reipas A.C. still runs the annual festival
track and field meet which is the oldest continuous track meet in New England! Although when one reads the meet
results in the Raivaaja, the local bilingual weekly paper, Finnish names among the winners are few and far between.
While the Finnish Socialist movement’s athletic clubs had the strongest participatory programs on the immigrant scene, the ubiquitous political splits also seriously affected these programs. The IWW industrial unionist Finns had parted ways with the Socialist Party in 1914. Then, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, a split developed between the pro-Soviet Communists and the evolutionary Socialists. There was a lot of bitterness among these currents. Each had their own halls, drama groups, newspapers, choruses, bands, and, of course, athletic clubs. Each group had its own summer festivals and accompanying track meets. All these political tendencies formed their own leagues, the constituent teams of which played each other only within their own leagues. Athletes were forbidden to compete in the meets of the political opponents of their club. You were considered a renegade and a traitor if you did so.
All this did not set well with the athletes themselves. Many were second generation Finns by then and did not share the intense politically sectarian sentiments of their parents. The young athletes wanted to participate in any events they felt like. So people just left clubs and crossed over to other meets for they were more motivated by their love of sports than by ideology.
So the governing political bodies relented. The Socialist Party clubs would now participate in meets of the “bourgeois” and non-partisan clubs. Although they had strong political differences in their views on the USSR, the Wobbly Finns and the pro-CP Finnish Workers Federation decided to join forces in a Labor Sports Union which would be a workers’ sports movement with the aim to include workers of other ethnicities and races, as contrasted to “bourgeois” sports.
The Labor Sports Union held its initial “Workers Olympics” in Waukegan, Illinois in the summer of 1927, with
about eight Finnish leftwing sports clubs and some Filipino groups. But then came another split between the IWW
and FWF people and the LSU split in two. Each once claimed to be the real Labor Sports Union, the other a fake.
Dr. Reino Kero of Turku University who discusses these developments in his history of North American Finnish
immigration, doesn’t go into specific reasons for the split, but it was probably due to the contrasting oppositional
world views of these temporary allies. So as a result in 1928 there were two Worker’s Olympics. The Wobbly LSU
held theirs in Detroit, the Finnish Workers Federation held theirs in New York, with dwindled results. Mostly
Finnish names prevailed in the statistics although the FWF was able to draw some African-American athletes. By
the early 1930s both of these entities had faded from the scene.
With the virtual end to fresh blood from Finland due to the choking off of most new immigration, , Finnish sports participation started to fade in the 1930s because of the aging of the first generation Finns. Now the shift was more to becoming enthusiastic “penkkiurheilijat” or bench-warming fans, rather than being out on the track and running the roads. The second generation didn’t care about the wrestling tradition or the gymnastics too much, and although track and field interest lingered longer, many of the second generation no longer participated in Finnish community activities and began to melt into the general American population. Those who did stay became more and more interested in basketball, swimming and skiing. So many of the clubs now had both men’s and women’s basketball teams which lasted through the decade and some longer. I remember going to the Belmont Hall in Worcester in the late 1930s, where the Worcester Suomi played the visiting New York Vesa. It was a doubleheader evening with both women’s and men’s teams taking the floor that night. Elvi Davis, daughter of some old Worcester family friends, played for the Suomi women. It was exciting to a Finn kid like me. In fact, the Suomi men’s team won the Worcester City Basketball Championships in 1935. The Reipas A.C. in Fitchburg still fielded a men’s team in the early post-World War II years. I saw them play a local Fitchburg “toiskielinen” (non-Finn) team at their home gym on the top floor of the old Raivaaja newspaper building on Wallace Avenue.
In the late 1930s the Worcester Social Democrats, who were no longer affiliated with the SP-USA after 1937, were still hosting fall festivals at Molyla (umlaut o), (or “Noisy Place“), a park they owned at Hemlock Beach. By that time full-fledged sports programs were fading away. But they still had horseshoe pitching contests, and I remember a mile race-walk won by my maternal uncle Otto Saikkonen, a rare 1930s immigrant who was then in his mid-thirties, in a field of middle-aged men. Then there were the rowboat races, with older middle-aged men with big-bellies tugging at the oars as to who would go out and come back first from mid-lake. The boat racing was eventually stopped because of too many heart attacks sustained among these aging poorly-conditioned Sunday jocks. It was a matter of time when most of this organized activity faded away, except for clubs like the Fitchburg Reipas, which had some dedicated athletes and an indefatigable manager like the late Frank Luokkala which propelled its existence to the present day. Trackman and skier Raimo Ahti has helped perpetuate the track and cross-country ski tradition at Fitchburg’s Saima Park in more recent years.
Even the powerful Finnish-American Athletic Club in New York faded away in the late 1950s. However, its women’s division spawned the New York Finnish Women’s Gymnasts (New Yorkin Suomalaiset Naisvoimistelijat) in 1934 which as far as I know functions to this day. By the 1990s their efforts were mostly in the area of aerobics and Finnish folk-dancing.
However, on the Canadian side of the border, because of large influxes of immigrants in the 1920s and post-World
war II periods, Finnish athletic clubs thrived several decades longer. However, because of time constraints we’re
limiting our comments to the Stateside scene.
While one of the great attributes of the Finnish-American sports movement was its participatory character which provided an enjoyable healthy physical outlet for the ordinary person who would never win medals or trophies, the community had its “stars”, among both immigrant and subsequent generations. Several of these outstanding people were the great Olympians already mentioned. But there were others, who deserved to be honored in this presentation, though we can only name a few of these worthies.
Among the immigrant generation there was Eino Leino, who under the FAAC banner medalled for Finland in wrestling at four Olympics, at Antwerp, Paris, Amsterdam and at Los Angeles. Ville Kyronen represented Finland in the Paris Olympics and placed second in the Boston Marathon in 1915. (In fact, it was Kyronen who wrote a slightly premature epitaph to the Finnish-American sports movement in 1940 when he proposed: “Finns should hold a really free and easy funeral sports meet for Finnish athletics here, so the sport doesn’t die suffering like a stray dog, and after this meet we should bury Finnish athletics and athletic clubs, since they no longer fulfill their intended purpose hereabouts---let’s then take up a competitive sport such as pouring from beer steins down our dry throats.”)
Boxing never caught on much as a participatory sport among American Finns, although the Finnish worker’s hall in the mining town of Red Lodge, Montana, earlier had sported a boxing team. But for the growing movement of 1930s “penkkiurheiljat”, the emergence of heavyweight boxer Gunnar Barlund on American soil gave these Finnish “bench-warmers” a new hero, now that Nurmi and Ritola had retired. In 1934 Barlund had won the European heavyweight championship, and soon after immigrated to the United States where he continued his pugilistic career. In 1938, when the legendary Joe Louis was champion, Barlund was ranked number 3 by Ring Magazine. I remember the fight which earned him that rank. I was 12 and we just recently had bought our first radio on the farm. Barlund was matched with the highly ranked giant Buddy Baer, younger brother of former heavyweight champ Max Baer. We had a number of Westminster Finnish farm friends at our house the night the fight was broadcast. If memory serves me right, “Gee Bee” knocked out Baer in the sixth round. We were ecstatic, me more than the rest as a I jumped up and down with joy. But it was downhill after that, particularly after California journeyman Lou Nova defeated him. Barlund eventually quit boxing and settled down to live in New York City.
In 1936, Finland’s Sten Suvio, a 1936 Olympic boxing champ in a lighter weight division, tried to follow Gee Bee’s lead and moved to the U. S. to pursue a professional boxing career. But after mediocre results, he returned to Finland. In 1934, Taavi (Dave) Komonen came down from Canada to win the Boston Marathon, the first Finn to do so since Carl Linder’s triumph in 1919.
Quincy’s Karhu Athletic Club came up with an exceptionally talented woman athlete in the late 20s, early 30s, named Rena MacDonald. If she was of Finnish descent, she might have been a second generation Finn from her mother’s side. (Quincy Finns who might know, please give me the info.) Liisa Liedes in her book “Finnish Imprint” about New England Finns cites her as an Olympian which so far I’ve been unable to verify. But the Google Internet search engine does indicate she was the U.S. women’s indoor shot put champion seven times, in 1927 and from 1929 through 1934. That was with an 8-pound (4-Kg) shot. In 1929, 1930 and 1935 she was also the U.S. outdoor shot put champ as well as in the discus in 1929. In Nov. 2000, Margaret (Rena) MacDonald was inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame. Go Rena, go Karhu!!
At the beginning of the Continuation War, Finnish merchant ships which were in U. S. ports were interred for the
duration. So their seamen were beached and had to seek shore jobs or hire on to U.S. wartime merchant ships. One of
them was a young Finnish racewalker named Leo Sjogren who ended up living in Los Angeles. He excelled in U.S.
racewalking circles and was very popular among American walkers. After attaining American citizenship, he
represented the United States in the 50-kilometer Racewalk at the Helsinki Olympics in 1952 and at Melbourne in
1956. In 1957, the 43-year-old Sjogren won his eighth U.S. championship. I lived in Los Angeles during the 1950s
and would see Sjogren, a member of the Finnish American Club in that city, and his buddies doing their Racewalk
training in Elysian Park on weekends. No doubt, their example helped inspire me to take up racewalking myself,
though much later, at age 50.
SECOND GENERATION “STARS”
The first generation of Finns born on U.S. soil have also have had their homegrown celebrities over the years. Included are several Olympians: In track and field we had Erkki Koutonen of Reipas AC in Fitchburg who made the U.S. team to the London Olympics of 1948 in the hop. step and jump event, now the triple jump. Marathoner Olli Manninen of Gardner, Mass. got to represent the United States in his specialty at London. Neither came close to medalling. In those days Olympic trials to select a team weren’t well developed. Koutonen made the team because he had recorded the third longest triple jump in the country during the preceding year. Manninen was selected by the virtue of having finished third in the Boston marathon in 1948, with the top three from that venerable run constituting the Olympic marathon team. Erkki Koutonen and his brother Paavo were outstanding athletes for Reipas also in the long and high jumps and hurdles. They were also first rate skiers and played on the Reipas basketball team. Manninen was another working stiff who trained for the marathon in the evening darkness on country roads to avoid the verbal abuse and ridicule of motorists , as he once told me. Unfortunately both of these men are now deceased.
But the outstanding Olympian from the Fitchburg area had to be the late Arthur Longsjo, Jr., who represented the United States in both the 1956 Winter and Summer Olympics, as a speed skater in the former and bicycle racer in the latter. He was an American bicycling champion, whose career was cut short by his unexpected death in 1959 at age 26. He had just won a spectacular 195-mile bicycling race from Quebec to Montreal, and was on his way back home to Fitchburg, when his driver friend’s car overturned in Vermont and Art Longsjo was killed. Since 1960, the annual Art Longsjo Bicycling Classic Race has been held in his honor which encompasses Mount Wachusett, just across from a reservoir in Westminster where our family farm was located. In 1998 Art Longsjo was inducted into the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame.
Rudy Maki was one of the Finnish-Americans who made the U.S. Olympic team as a skier. Tauno Pulkkinen was another important Finnish-American skier in the post World War II period who was connected with the Finnish Ski Club in Brooklyn and who won six individual U.S. Championships and represented the country at the 1958 World Championships in Lahti, Finland. “The Flying Bietila Brothers” of Ishpeming, MI were outstanding ski jumping champions: Walter, Ralph, Roy and Paul. All but Roy were Olympians.
Present-day octogenarian Esko Hallila of Maryland has won numerous national swimming championships in the masters division in the 80-plus age groups. Hallila is a product of the Finnish social-democratic hall tradition in Worcester.
Another most recent Olympian is marathoner Bob Kempainen, M.D., from Minnetonka, Minnesota who was on two
U.S. Olympic teams, in 1992 and 1996. In 1994 he was second in the New York Marathon and also in the 1995 Los
Angeles Marathon. His marathon best was a 2:08:47 for the fastest finish ever for an American, in the 1994 Boston
Marathon. He actually finished seventh in Boston, but the era of the African dominance in world long distance
running was then coming into the fore. And his Boston time was never considered an American record because of a
downhill factor. Yet his time was faster than any time ever run by a Finnish-born Finn. The Finnish national record is
2:11:38, accomplished by Jukka Toivola in the 1983 New York Marathon. Kempainen retired from running in 1996
to pursue his medical career.
FINNISH SUPPORT SYSTEM
Finnish-Americans have always been generous in their support of Finnish athletes. Generous financial donations by special organizations of our community here helped subsidize the Olympic aspirations of people like Ritola, Kolehmainen, and Eino Leino. Fundraising events were held around the United States which raised thousands of dollars toward building the Helsinki Olympic Stadium for the anticipated 1940 Olympics which were never held because of the World War. Since the last Finnish winner of the Boston Marathon was Dave Komonen in 1934, Finnish-Americans were hungry to get a winner of our ethnicity again in that event. So dances and other fund-raisers were held to bring Finnish runners to Boston over a period of several years in the post-war era. And that eventually paid dividends. After European champion Mikko Hietanen finished second at Boston in 1947, we finally had a winner in Veikko Karvonen in 1954. In 1956 it was Antti Viskari. Paavo Kotila followed in 1960. Then Eino Oksanen took it three times, in 1959, 1961 and 1962. Finally, Olavi Suomalainen won in 1972. That’s all she wrote! Realistically, there has been no Finn, American, or European being able to touch the Kenyans, Ethiopians and Moroccans at such distances in years.
Of course, there are the multi-millionaire Finnish hockey players sprinkled throughout the National Hockey League. But scant amateurs., although there are quite a few Finnish collegians competing on U.S. university track and field teams every year. Gerry Henkel, editor of the New World Finn quarterly, is always proud of the powerful Finnish-imported players of the women’s hockey team at the University of Minnesota at Duluth. The late Lauri Rissanen, a Berkeley area building contractor and a sports buff, was successful in promoting Finnish athletes for various sports at the University of California at Berkeley. I remember going to a woman’s basketball game at Cal one season where three of the first line starters were Finnish imports/ I looked up at the top stands, and there was Lauri waving a big banner with hand-painted lettering reading. In Finnish: Menkaa, Karhut (“Go, Bears”).
But the Finnish-American club era of our own participatory athletics is mostly dead. During the earlier years of the FinnFests, there were running races and other sports at most of them. Lauri Rissanen organized a track and field meet for kids at the 1986 FinnFest at Berkeley, with four-time Olympic gold medallist Lasse Viren handing out the place awards to the youngsters. I racewalked in a number of FinnFest running races myself: at both Hancock affairs, at Seattle, and here at Lake Worth in 1991. I see that there is a golf tournament here in Florida this year. And that’s it. I have nothing against golf, but I know I miss the old traditional athletic fare of the earlier immigrant community in which I grew up.
Athletics was as significant a part of the our Finnish immigrant culture, as was the music, dance, poetry and drama. And I think it should be honored as such. It helped to provide good health and enjoyment to so many of us. I’ll be 78 in March , but I work out in a gym three days a week, racewalk informally, and ride a bicycle regularly, and if it weren’t for the inspirational precedent set by our so active forebears, I might not be doing it. Kiitos, Paavo, kiitos, Ville and kiitos, Hannes. (Kiitos means “thank you”.)
Besides being presented at the FinnFest in Lake Worth, Florida, this paper was also read at the Finnish-American Folk Festival at Naselle, Washington, on July 31, 2004. It was also published in 2004 in the Raivaaja newspaper, serialized in three installments. It will also appear on www.finnam.naselle.net website. HS