European Champion Jukka Keskisalo chosen Sports Personality of the Year
Podium places to Tanja Poutiainen and Tero Pitkämäki
In a singularly one-sided competition, 3,000 metres steeplechase European Champion Jukka Keskisalo crushed the rest of the field in this year's voting for Finland's Sports Personality of the Year. He gained a total of 3,992 votes and two-thirds of all the 1st-place votes, a colossal 273 of them. Keskisalo was the surprise winner at the European Athletics Championships in Gothenburg.
He was followed home on Wednesday by slalom and giant slalom specialist Tanja Poutiainen, with 2,236 votes and 25 of the sports journalist jurors placing her first on their list. An equally respectful distance back to third was kept by javelin-thrower Tero Pitkämäki, with 1,401 votes and 3 first-ranked positions.
Poutiainen took silver in the giant slalom at the Torino Olympics, and she was 6th in the slalom. It was Finland's first ever alpine skiing Olympic medal. Pitkämäki, meanwhile, recovered from the disappointment of missing out on a medal at the 2005 Helsinki World Championships and grabbed silver in Gothenburg.
Keskisalo made Finnish steeplechase history by winning gold at the European Athletics Championships in August.
It was the first Finnish victory in this event in a major international competition for 70 years.
The way in which he won that night was a great deal more shocking and exciting - Keskisalo ran a flawless tactical race and moved from last to first over the final five hundred metres to see off runners with much better times to their name - than was Wednesday's awards ceremony: Keskisalo had been installed as a hot favourite for this title within seconds of breasting the tape in Sweden.
The reasons for his selection are several: athletics is still a much-cherished sport hereabouts, Finnish victories on the track are a rare delicacy, and neither the Winter Olympics (six silvers - including that men's curling team that briefly gripped the nation's imagination - and three bronze medals) nor the motor sports fraternity brought home a title, even though Marcus Grönholm went close in the World Rally Championship.
"It isn't for stuff like this that you run, but of course this is a huge thing for me", said Keskisalo. "When one looks down the list of former winners, it feels as though I'm in quite the wrong company", he added modestly.
Keskisalo may have stunned Finnish sports enthusiasts in Gothenburg's Ullevi Stadium, but he did not really surprise himself or his coach Tommy Ekblom. It soon came out that the pair's training regimen had a pencilled-in note about the European title.
Keskisalo made his initial breakthrough at the World Championships in Paris in 2003, finishing ninth in a hotly-contested final in a fast time of 8:17.72. At that point he broke Ekblom's old personal record.
After Gothenburg, Keskisalo trimmed his personal best down to 8:16.74, the second-fastest time ever run over this distance by a Finn. This nevertheless did not lead to any notes in his training diary about gold as a target at next year's World Championships in Osaka, Japan. "One aim is to be in Finnish record shape", he commented in reference to Osaka. "That should be enough to come home somewhere between third and sixth."
The Finnish national record is already 30 years old, and belongs to Tapio Kantanen, at 8:12.60.
Keskisalo was also the overwhelming public favourite. The runner-up places went to aerobics multiple world champion Tiia Piili and to orienteering world champion Jani Lakanen.
In the journalists' voting, boxer Armin Asikainen, ski-jumpers Matti Hautamäki and Janne Ahonen, ATP tennis pro Jarkko Nieminen, the Finnish national ice hockey team (silver medallists in Torino), Jani Lakanen, and Nordic combined World Cup winner Hannu Manninen rounded off the top ten. Tanja Poutiainen was the only woman to feature in this listing, and was the overwhelming winner of the Sportswoman of the Year title - for the third year in succession.
Keskisalo's coach Ekblom was voted Trainer of the Year, the ice hockey Lions got the team award for nearly going all the way in Torino, and the Disabled Athlete of the Year title went to Markku Niinimäki.
Niinimäki took gold and silver medals in shot put and javelin at the IPC World Championships in Assen, setting a world record in the shot put in the process. He has a spinal cord injury and is a wheelchair athlete. Niinimäki has won this title before, in 2003.
Previously in HS International Edition:
Jukka Keskisalo storms to surprise European gold in 3000 metres steeplechase (11.8.2006)
Tanja Poutiainen takes giant slalom silver (24.2.2006)
Tero Pitkämäki wins javelin silver in Gothenburg (10.8.2006)
At least 2,000 wait until early hours to welcome Finnish ice hockey medallists (27.2.2006)