Sportsmen set in stone in the capital
Helsinki has around a dozen statues to past sporting heroes, and four of them are practically within shouting distance of each other
By Arno Seiro
"Let's meet at the statue of Paavo the Great", Antero Raivuori had suggested the previous day.
Countless others have said exactly the same, particularly when linking up before a big sporting event in the Olympic Stadium, such as a football international.
The only problem is that one is seldom alone waiting there, so if two strangers meet and recognition is an issue, it might not be the best possible location.
But for Antero Raevuori's planned excursion to see the capital's statues of past sporting heroes, this was an ideal starting point - Raevuori has written a book about Paavo Nurmi (1897-1973), and let's face it, they don't get much more worthy of a statue than Nurmi.
With his flying stride, the winner of nine gold medals has delighted tens of thousands of tourists in front of the Stadium since this copy of sculptor Väinö Aaltonen's work was put up here in 1952.
Of course I have seen it dozens of times myself, but right away Raevuori brings something new to the table.
"Aaltonen has used a certain amount of artistic licence here. The statue was supposed to exude pace and lightness. Nurmi is shown striding and coming down on his toes, whereas in fact if you watch clips of him in action, he practically ran back on his heels", says Raevuori.
He doesn't need to mention the anecdote about Nurmi's first encounter with the bronze original in Turku, when the runner's only comment was a snorted: "I don't run naked".
The Finnish state first made plans for a statue for Nurmi in the autumn of 1924.
That summer the runner had more or less cleaned up at the Paris Olympics, taking five gold medals to add to the three golds and a silver he won in Antwerp in 1920.
The first bronze statue was completed in 1925, and there are five copies of the same piece in existence. "In Finland there is the one in Turku, one in Jyväskylä, this one here, and a fourth - the original cast - is in the Ateneum Art Museum. Then there is a fifth in Lausanne in Switzerland, in the park surrounding the Musée Olympique, which was unveiled in 1994."
It seems possible that Nurmi and Aaltonen would have got on quite well together during the modelling sessions for the statue.
Nurmi was famously not a particularly talkative sort, while Aaltonen (1894-1966) was more or less stone deaf.
"But Aaltonen was quite a sportsman in his own right, you know. He was a wrestler."
In the same area around the Olympic Stadium there are three other statues of Finnish sportsmen. This is quite some concentration, given that there are not more than a couple of dozen statues of sporting heroes to be found in the entire country.
"It's mostly track and field athletes and cross-country skiers. To the best of my knowledge there have been no statues erected anywhere for representatives of team sports", says Raevuori, although there were plans a few years ago to put up a statue in Lahti to Ajax, Barcelona, and Liverpool footballer Jari Litmanen.
Most of the athletes cast in bronze are runners, but there are exceptions.
"For instance in Pori the model for the statue of a javelin-thrower was Matti Järvinen [winner of the Olympic gold medal in Los Angeles in 1932], but the figure itself has no name", Raevuori knows to tell.
And why would he not know, since Raevuori has just completed his latest book on the history of the Järvinen sporting dynasty - Matti Järvinen's father was himself an Olympic champion and his two brothers both won medals at the highest level.
But Pori is a long way off, so let us concentrate on Helsinki.
Very close to the Nurmi statue is one of another Finnish distance-running legend, Lasse Viren (1949-), the winner of the 5,000 and 10,000 metres in Munich and again in Montreal.
"This place would make a great little park for statues. I'm sure it would a be a draw for tourists, especially if you could also find additional information on the figures, their achievements and significance."
In the foyer of the neighbouring Kisahalli [Töölö Sports Hall, built in 1935 as a exhibition hall and used during the 1952 Olympics as a venue for gymnastics, wrestling, boxing, and weightlifting] stands the statue of Finland's most successful wrestler, Kustaa Pihlajamäki (1902-1944).
Pihlajamäki won two golds and a silver medal at three Olympics.
"Yes, and he didn't do it the easy way, either. His gold medals came 12 years apart, in 1924 and 1936", says Raevuori, bending down to read the inscription on the plinth.
But what about the fourth statue hereabouts? For that we have to walk back past Paavo Nurmi and on towards the Olympic Stadium.
The great thinker and philosopher of Finnish sport
Lauri "Tahko" Pihkala (1888-1981) has stood by the south-east corner of the stadium since 1988, when the statue went up to mark the centenary of his birth.
Pihkala was not an Olympic icon like the others, but his importance to Finnish sport is hard to overestimate.
He invented pesäpallo, the Finnish version of baseball, and developed a great many other games.
"Pihkala's influence on sport in this country has been without parallel", says Raevuori, and then he breaks into a grin.
"And the odd thing is that he seems to still be wielding an influence on things from beyond the grave. In the 1990s, the Central Association for Recreational Sports and Outdoor Activities [founded in 1938 by Pihkala himself] used to arrange an annual mass cross-country ski outing from Paloheinä to the statue, but one winter the conditions were so mild that the ground was bare and skis couldn't be used. The group arrived on foot with ski-sticks in their hands, and some have argued that this was the beginning of what has now become the popular pastime of Nordic Walking."
The map that accompanies this article features six other statues from the world of sports located in the capital.
The oldest is of Uuno Pitkä and Armas Wilkman, two young Helsinki boxers, and is called simply "The Boxers".
It stands in a park near Hakaniemi, and went up in 1932.
"The Injured Athlete" by Erkki Toukolehto dates from 1937, but the bronze statue was put in place in Käpylä in 1950.
The location is actually quite suitable, as the 1952 Olympic Village was not far away.
"Boys Throwing a Ball" by Mikko Hovi stands in the yard of a comprehensive school in the eastern suburb of Herttoniemi.
Boxer Gunnar Bärlund (1911-1982), often known simply as "GeeBee", earned the right to be cast in bronze after he won the European Heavyweight Championship as an amateur in 1934 and went on to fight as a pro, as the first Finn to do so.
He was no slouch in the ring, and was at one stage listed as 2nd challenger to the then world heavyweight champion Joe Louis.
Bärlund fought successfully in the United States, for instance at Madison Square Garden, and a major annual amateur tournament in Tampere still carries his name.
His larger-than-life statue is on the corner of Sturenkatu and Hämeentie.
Tapio Rautavaara (1915-1979) won gold in the javelin at the London Olympics of 1948, but was probably as well known to Finns as a singer and movie actor, cast in hunky roles that did not require much natural acting talent but offered an opportunity to sing sentimental evergreens.
He is also perhaps less known for the fact that he was a world champion in 1958 at a quite different sport - archery.
Rautavaara's statue, showing him with a guitar rather than a javelin, is in the Oulunkylä district of town, where he spent a good part of his life.
The last statue on the map is called "Concerto for Laakso" and is by the Swiss-born artist Denise Ziegler.
Unlike the others, it does not depict a human figure or figures, but is a life-size orchestra conductor's podium in granite and brass.
The sporting connection lies in the fact that the work is surrounded on all sides by sports venues, including the Sports Museum, the Olympic Stadium, Ice Hall, and the new Finnair Football Stadium (2000), for which it was commissioned. It was unveiled in 2001.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 13.11.2009
The article is one of a series carried in Helsingin Sanomat on forgotten sporting arenas in Helsinki. The journalist was accompanied on excursions around the city by journalist and writer Antero Raivuori.
Note: Pictures of all the statues referred to, with the exception of that of Kustaa Pihlajamäki, can be found from the Public Art in Finland link below.
Lauri "Tahko" Pihkala (Wikipedia)
Gunnar "GeeBee" Bärlund (BoxRec.com)
Tapio Rautavaara (Wikipedia)
Paavo Nurmi (Wikipedia)
Lasse Viren (Wikipedia)
Kustaa Pihlajamäki (Wikipedia)
Public Art in Finland (search on name of individual or artist)
The Statue of Lasse Viren listed on "Public Art in Finland"
ARNO SEIRO / Helsingin Sanomat