Lights, camera, flags!

The modern Olympic juggernaut can be blamed for many things, including the deafening media noise that tends to consign truly important events to oblivion. This is what recently happened in the aftermath of the London games to the tenth anniversary of a Finnish athlete’s potentially epoch-making interview.

On 11 August 2002, Janne Holmén won the men’s marathon at the European Championships held in Munich. A native of the Swedish-speaking and fiercely autonomous Åland islands, Holmén did not excel at Finnish-language interviews, though he spoke fluent English and French. Given the 24-year-old athlete’s virtual lack of marathon experience, his triumph was arguably the biggest surprise of the pan-European meet, and observers immediately recalled two other Finns, Pekka Vasala and Lasse Viren, sharing the 1500, 5000 and 10 000m Olympic gold medals between the two of them at the same stadium thirty years earlier.

Holmén savored his victory with a Finnish flag that had been tossed at him. Pictures of him holding the blue and white flag aloft adorned front pages the following morning, even though the runner-cum-student himself had come to regret those images. A doctoral student at Uppsala University at the time, Holmén took his PhD in history four years later.

In a candid interview with Hufvudstadsbladet (14 August 2002), the leading Swedish-language Finnish daily, Holmén said he would rather have not celebrated the greatest moment of his athletic career with the flag. Taking a principled stand against sportive nationalism, he decried the display of national symbols in any kind of contest. National anthems too ought to be dropped from the cérémonie protocolaire, according to him.

Unsurprisingly, Holmén’s musings were largely perceived as unpatriotic, and the ensuing media furor proved more vocal than the coverage of the actual victory celebrations. Holmén had clearly touched a raw nerve with his remarks. Thus, while the newly crowned European champion dismissed banal exercises in nationalism, many others – those with absolutely no stake in his achievement – told him to shut up and put up with the flag-waving photo op.

As a former hardcore track fan I remember Carl Lewis being scolded at the 1984 Olympics for ‘calculated’ post-race behavior. According to his critics, there was something suspicious about the haste with which he grabbed the nearest available American flag after each gold medal effort. (Lewis won four events at the Los Angeles games.) In a similar vein, Lasse Viren’s laps of honor at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics caused a minor controversy as flag-carrying Finns invaded the track to keep him company. At both games Viren had to take his second victory lap (the one he deserved by winning the 5000m race) alone; security measures had been tightened up in the meantime.

In the twenty-first century, by contrast, flags are handed over to athletes as a matter of course at every major meet. Indeed, winning any medal has become a legitimate excuse for a nice little jig with the flag. Can one even imagine an athlete of Holmén’s caliber refusing the sacrosanct cloth? The media would no doubt brandish such an athlete as an enemy of the people, politicians would sanctimoniously bemoan his or her appalling lack of manners, and sponsors would in no time desert the unmarketable medalist.

It seems, as a host of academics have noted, that the so-called globalization of sport has by no means rendered nationalism an obsolete concept from an unsophisticated past. Scholars should therefore probe the exact evolution of the post-race flag celebration over the past few decades. Would any landmark moment emerge from a scrupulous reading of events? Could the quasi-obligatory flag interlude be somehow connected to the implosion of communism and the outbreak of old school nationalism in post-communist countries?

Speaking of communism, I also remember officials at the 1980 Moscow games effectively denying victorious athletes the option of an extra lap, though surely not because of an aversion to nationalism as such. Instead, the Soviet stalwarts of ‘planned (Olympic) economy’ exercised vigilance over ‘petit-bourgeois individualism’. Yet today athletes and officials across the world are united in their quest to promote the cause of sportive nationalism – unless, of course, some of the medalists are merely going through the motions while awaiting a courageous colleague to make the first rebellious move.

Let the memory of Janne Holmén’s words not vanish, and may there soon appear an athlete who turns the marathoner’s reflections into reality! That would truly be a deed on a par with the Black Power salute of the American sprinters at the 1968 Olympics.

Erkki Vettenniemi

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