A faulty film coming to a screen near you

The 2001 doping incident that implicated the Finnish cross-country ski team represents a ‘national trauma’ for Finland, asserts Arto Halonen, the director and co-screenwriter of When Heroes Lie (original title: Sinivalkoinen valhe). It certainly seems to have been a traumatic experience for Halonen whose film recently premiered in Finland; later this year the documentary will be broadcast in Norway. Recycling old stories with a few rumors thrown in, the film generated headlines across Scandinavia well before its release, headlines that sought to contest the integrity of certain athletes.

According to a particularly sensational claim, Juha Mieto, arguably the most beloved Finnish skier ever, had discussed the use of anabolic steroids in 1975. But, and this is a truly momentous but, Mieto and other contemporaries promptly corrected the year (it was 1972) and disputed the reference to steroids. If, however, a drug discussion had taken place in 1972, there was still no reason for the filmmaker to humiliate an elder statesman of Finnish sport. Since anabolic steroids were not banned at the time, their ethical status matched the ethical status of vitamin injections.

Alas, Halonen totally ignores the elementary fact that if a substance is not prohibited, anybody can legitimately resort to it. Amazingly, the documentary keeps moralizing for two hours without ever specifying that there actually are anti-doping rules and that those rules were not handed over to humankind on the slopes of Mount Sinai. That stated, anachronistic accounts can also be encountered in scholarly literature; the doping phenomenon has always lent itself to cheap posturing at the expense of calm deliberation.

The moral standard of the film corresponds with the glaring lack of historical context. Time and again the director ambushes people with his prying camera, shooting drug-related queries so as to obtain ‘confessions’. This is precisely how decent folks are forced to defend themselves by less than truthful statements, as the philosopher Verner Møller argues in The Scapegoat (2011). If you don’t tolerate lying, Møller reasons in his book about drugs in cycling, ‘it is your responsibility to try and avoid creating situations which may tempt lies’.

One should perhaps not expect filmmakers to be familiar with sport philosophy, but laypeople too are increasingly learning to problematize the issue of performance enhancement. Why is this substance banned while the use of another that can produce similar results is not regulated?

For Halonen, ‘clean sport’ reigns supreme although he fails to mention (for example) hypoxic chambers, vitamin B12 injections and iron supplements. There’s an infinite variety of perfectly legitimate means to manipulate one’s blood values, but such nuances are beyond many observers’ comprehension. All that matters is to extort confessions and sing the praises of an utterly abstract and therefore meaningless concept of ‘clean sport’.

Speaking of confessions, I should probably own up to being a minor character in the libelous film. When Halonen phoned me last year I could immediately sense that his intentions were not quite honorable; consequently, I refused to take part in his project. Yet two or three phone calls and emails later I yielded. I simply let myself to be lured into a trap by promises of a balanced and thoughtful approach. Ultimately, the director cut out all replies and reflections that went against his prejudices, leaving just a skillfully edited snippet in which I appear to join the chorus of moralizers.

When it comes to sensitive topics like drugs in sport, I strongly urge scholars to abstain from co-operating with journalists and filmmakers whose moral and intellectual credentials cannot be ascertained. An aura of academic credibility is the last thing the bloodhounds deserve.

Looking on the bright side, at least one Finnish journalist dared to confront the self-satisfied director with the only relevant question: ‘Aren’t you afraid that your documentary and the ensuing discussion will end up increasing the number of tragic fates?’ In Halonen’s view, such an outcome ‘would be terribly sad, of course’, because he knew that the premature death of Mika Myllylä (1969–2011), one of the six skiers who failed a urine test in 2001, resulted from a combination of public humiliation and incessant jeering.

Should other athletes perish in the wake of his injurious documentary, the original tagline (‘The lie is bigger than you ever believed’) will, I presume, swiftly be replaced by a more attractive one: ‘This film is more lethal than you ever believed!’

3 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. avatar

    Erkki Vettenniemi is entitled to his opinion about our film When Heroes Lie, but he is not entitled to misrepresent it factually, and he fails to describe the serious personal conflict-of-interest that accounts for the bizarre and nearly hysterical bias of his piece. Vettenniemi holds a personal grudge against the filmmakers for rejecting one of his pet conspiracy theories about a particular doping incident – a theory that we rejected because we could find no factual basis for it. He has a strong private incentive to mischaracterize our film, as the enormous gap between his view and the view of most critics amply demonstrates.

    Vettenniemi has written his opinion for an English-language blog because he knows that most readers outside of Finland will not have had a chance to see the film or the overwhelmingly positive reaction from Finnish critics, and will therefore not know just how distorted his description is. “Arto Halonen has captured the doping culture of cross-country skiing with a respectful persistence and honesty,” Linda Mäki-Kala wrote in Me Naiset, one of Finland’s largest women’s magazines. Anna, another respected women’s magazine, wrote that the film “is a tour-de-force of investigative journalism that handles a massive amount of evidence with the intensity of a thriller.” The movie magazine Episodi wrote: “Halonen has made an impressive, fair-minded and extremely comprehensive film that the viewer can watch with an excitement similar to watching a good thriller.” The Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s largest newspaper, devoted a long review to the film praising it precisely for the amount of care and work that had gone into it. Moreover, the reviewer also praised the complexity of the film’s perspective, which she said “reflects the very subject of the investigation of events and the doping issue, its slipperiness and obscurity.” More of the Finnish reviews can be found at http://www.whenheroeslie.com/news

    Vettenniemi misrepresents the approach, philosophy and ethical views of the film. He tries to give the impression, again in contradiction to the vast majority of the critics, that the film is an attack on individual skiers when instead it is a description of the complex webs of lies in the international ski system as a whole. One of his tactics is to pretend we have asserted views that we have never stated. For instance, it was Juha Mieto, not the filmmakers, who insisted he had never done doping or even discussed doping at any time in his career, and who made this assertion of absolute career-long purity essential to his public image in politics. As long as former athletes build political careers partly through insisting they have never done doping at any time, it is appropriate to inquire whether this is true. Similarly, Vettenniemi projects onto the film a simplistic condemnation of doping where most critics saw us describing the subject in a complex and multi-faceted light. Perhaps most strangely and inaccurately, he tries to blame the filmmakers for the pain that individual skiers feel at being caught doping. As the film takes great effort to make clear, we are not out to attack individual skiers but to investigate the overall system that holds individual skiers solely responsible. The code of silence in international skiing demands that individuals be sacrificed in order to protect and hide the full extent of doping. It is this code of silence that leads to individuals taking all the blame when in fact it is the systematic and general use of doping that needs to be admitted and discussed. As long as the code exists, certain unlucky skiers will have their lives ruined by it. The only way to protect them from the pain of being caught and demonized is to end the entire process of scapegoating individuals, and the only way to stop the scapegoating is by finally being more honest about the systematic use of doping at the elite-sport level.

    The explanation for the intensity of Vettenniemi’s bias is easy to find. He worked with Halonen on the film at one point, and tried to convince Halonen of a wild conspiracy theory about an infamous medicine bag found at a Shell station. Halonen interviewed others connected to this incident and could find no information to support Vettenniemi’s theory. We understand Vettenniemi’s frustration at having his theory rejected, but this does not give him the right to hide the full extent of his conflict-of-interest. We also understand why he might be jealous at seeing our film receive so much favorable attention, and why he would feel the need to lash out at us for our success in an area where he would very much like to be considered a leading authority. Nevertheless, he has done serious damage to his own reputation by engaging in such over-the-top distortions about our film, and he has crossed more than a few ethical boundaries in attempting to mask his personal reasons for misrepresenting our work.

    Yours,

    Arto Halonen, Jouni K. Kemppainen, Kevin Frazier
    Co-writers of When Heroes Lie

  2. avatar

    I’m not sure if there are more than the four of us around here, but obfuscating the issue with an imaginary ‘conflict of interest’ rules out rational discussion. As our email correspondence testifies, my disagreement with the director goes back to July 11 when the first film trailer indicated to what extent sportspeople would be abused for the sake of a few headlines.

  3. avatar

    Thank you Arto Halonen for a shockingly truthful, painful and very important documentary. You are doing a great job.

    The cheating has to stop, in order for clean athletes to have the chance they deserve. They are the loosers in this rotten game.

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