India Is Doing Better Than Finland in Olympic Medals

I have been pointing out since 2000 that India has been terrible at winning Olympic medals, and this seems to have been the first year that that idea has penetrated the general media consciousness. 

On the other hand, India is improving, from one medal per Olympics to a half dozen this year. In contrast, Finland, a former Olympic superpower, has fallen off a cliff from their glory days, down to three medals, none gold, this year. 

It's hard to overstate how good Finland, despite its small population and near poverty, was at the Olympics from 1912 (when it was still a part of the Russian empire) up through 1956. It finished second in total medals at the well-attended 1924 Paris Olympics and was regularly in the top half dozen countries. They have a total of 300 medals in the Summer Olympics (and 151 in the Winter Olympics), and after the 2008 games one web page calculated they were tops all time in medals per capita. (This kind of calculation is sensitive to where you draw the bottom cutoff to keep out, say, very small countries with a single medal.)

The Finns pretty much invented "scientific" running: Paavo Nurmi was famous for running, no matter what the opposition was doing, with a stopwatch in his hand at whatever pace he'd calculated would win. Then, on the last lap, he's toss the stopwatch on the infield grass and sprint to gold. He'd then stroll over and pick up his stopwatch and go get ready for the next event he'd win.

This national obsession with fitness helped Finland avoid complete conquest by the Soviets in the 1939-40 Winter War, which was largely an aerobically-exhausting fight of infantry in thick snow. When people talk about how awful nationalism is in the Olympics, I'd respond by pointing to Finnish nationalism. Finland is a peaceful and prosperous nation that has only been independent for 95 years. Their remarkable record in the Olympics when a new country probably helped build national unity. 

But, in 1960, their medal haul dropped into the single digits, only climbing above that in the boycotted 1984 games. A non-Finn reader speculates: 

My guess is that they are not a country with much sports diversity. Previously (until 1936) they were a superpower in T&F, especially in middle and long distance and javelin. In middle and long distance running, the east africans came and ate their lunch. They had no male javelin finalist this year, while Kenya, of all places, had one. He had trained a lot in Finland, though. A look at the wiki page of Finnish medalists since 1992 shows that most of those have medaled in old sports. In recent years, the games have diversified a lot by adding a lot of new events, but Finland has not helped itself to those opportunities, by and large. The 2nd most medaling sport for Finland is wrestling, but there they have been losing out to a growing importance of countries in the area that formerly was covered by either the old Persian Empire or Ottoman Empire.

The common theme of those events is that it is easy - conceptually - to dope for them, and Finland is probably not willing to compete in that regard.

The last superstar Olympic Finn was distance runner Lasse Viren in the 1970s who was subject to numerous allegations that he would have some of his blood stored during the off-season then would get topped off with a pint or two right before the Olympics.

Also, none of those sports pay anything unless you reach Olympic medalist status, and not all that much even then. Until the 60ies, when a lot of Finns were poor, it made sense to train hard in the off chance that the training provided a way out of the cold farm. Look at Michigan upper peninsula - a lot of finns emigrated there, and it is the only place in USA where finns dominate. It is also a cold place, and the agricultural land is not bountiful. Now, Finland itself is to a great part even bleaker. Do a google pic search of Finland before 1960. Now, Finland has undergone a huge economic leap forward, so it makes more sense to study for getting into Nokia rather than to escape the farm. That economic logic is not there for a Kenyan runner or Taijik wrestler.

Finland would do well by following the British lead. GB had their best games. medal-wise, since 1908. GB performed exceedingly well in Equestrian, rowing, and a few other sports. The commong thing about those 2 sports is that they cost quite a bit to compete in, so there are significant barriers which limit competition from poorer countries.

Finland has the sports mix of a poor country, with a 5 million population, and rich people. That is not a good combination if one wants to amass a lot of medals.


So, my guess is that modern Finns are too rich to go in all out for poor man's sports and too recently poor to think it a great idea to spend a lot of tax or charitable money on piling up medals in rich man's sports.