Exceptional Life Courses: Elite Athletes and Successful Artists in 2000s Finland

Mikko Salasuo, Mikko Piispa & Helena Huhta
Finnish Youth Research Society


Finland is a sparsely populated and little known country in the northeast corner of Europe. Frequent names on the lists of internationally best known Finns include Jean Sibelius, Jari Litmanen, Tove Jansson and Kimi Räikkönen – artists and athletes. Arts and sport have played an important role in building up the international image of Finland. At the same time, they have been the essential building blocks in the construction of our national identity.

The aim of the book, which is also called Exceptional Life Courses – Elite Athletes and Successful Artists in 2000s Finland, is to understand those complex life course mechanisms and processes that have led 78 athletes and 29 young artists to success in 2000s Finland. Besides the successful athletes, the researchers look into the dropout of 18 particularly promising athletes. Furthermore, the research sheds light on the particular challenges faced by athletes with a multicultural background.

In this study, the life courses of athletes and artists are reviewed in parallel. Consequently, the reader enjoys a broad insight into the growth and development of Finnish elite athletes in the late 20th and early 21st century Finland. The same applies to the young successful artists, whose life phases are studied from childhood until the present. This study is unique in the international context, as the researchers were able to reach an exceptionally large number of the best Finnish athletes and artists of different fields. Career research on Finnish elite athletes, based on the recent international research trends, has not been done before in Finland.

The key research problem of this study is derived from the interpretation framework of the life course analysis. First of all, we try to retrace the life courses of those elite athletes and top artists who have succeeded in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s – precisely how and why these athletes and artists have made it to the top in their respective fields, in this particular historical time A multidisciplinary approach is characteristic to Finnish youth research. The interviewees represented young people of approximately the same age – generation – who share similar experiences in society.

Research data has been collected by the method of narrative life story interviews. The life story interview traditionally begins with an open question to which the interviewee is expected to answer in his or her own words. After the first answer, as uninterrupted as possible, the interviewer asked questions on those topics that required precision or which had not been answered at the outset. The interviewers aimed at repeating the same questions with each interviewee, to ensure comparability of data in fundamental themes. The well-known scholar in the career research of elite athletes, Jean Côté, and his research team regard the interview method as the best one to study elite athletes. This research method allows us to get a hold of the life courses of those athletes that have overcome all the obstacles and actually reached the top.

salasuoetalWe aimed at interviewing young elite athletes. Their life course is located in the changing Finnish society of the late 1990’s and early 21st century. It has clearly influenced their growth and development towards elite athletes. In the research data, the average age of the athletes was 25 years and 6 months. The research data was categorized on the basis of different sport types. This is justified as the differences are clear and the categorization facilitated the structuring of the analysis. The athletes were defined as team sport athletes (50), traditional individual sport athletes (35) and lifestyle sport athletes (11). Of the athletes defined as elite athletes, 38 represented team sports, 31 traditional individual sports and 9 lifestyle sports.

The research data consists of 29 artist interviews. The average age was approximately 33.5 years. The artists’ careers typically start much slower than those of the athletes. When collecting the data, the research data and the success level of the interviewees were indirectly defined by the ‘gatekeepers’ of art and culture because art awards and recognitions were one of the selection criteria, among others.

Analytical chapters follow the introductory chapter. They have been divided into four main parts. In the first part, we discuss the importance of social networks to the growing up of the athletes and the artists. In both groups, the significance of the family rises above everything else. The capitals acquired in childhood, from home, school and peers are the beginning of that cumulative process which leads to an individual’s development to a successful athlete or artist. ‘The family table’ is the metaphor to that place where adults – steered by their parenting principles – pass on their values and routines to their children.

In the second part, the research data is reflected against the backdrop of that cultural and social landscape where the athletes and the artists have grown up. The idea of young people as generations whose living conditions are connected to a certain time and place plays a central role here. These circumstances have had a varying impact on the conditions of growing up and to become an athlete or an artist. Thus both athletes and artists are the ‘children of their time’ even though they’ve grown up in different ways, steered by very different orientations.

In the third part we focus on the transitions in the lives of the athletes and the artists, and on the meanings of their own agency. Again, we see that these aspects have very different meanings in the life courses of the artists and the athletes. As to the athletes, agency and transitions are intertwined and the construction of the institutional structures of sport has a significant meaning. The artists’ growth is more uncontrolled and easygoing although the role of, for instance, education is important and the ‘hard facts’ of professional life have to be faced sooner or later.

In the fourth part we look into the micro data sets within the elite athlete interviews: the dropouts and the multicultural athletes. We notice that the decision to finish one’s career in sports must be understood as part of the entire life course. It is not only a question whether things are done ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in sports – although this also matters. In any case, being an elite athlete is a very delicate equation and its symmetry is constantly under threat. The analysis of the interviews of the multicultural athletes brings up certain challenges and opportunities of that particular group, including racism.

The summary chapter comes last. It draws together the different notions of this study and compares the observations that resulted from the analysis. Lastly, we discuss what we have learned during the research process and provide direction for future research endeavours.

Copyright © Mikko Salasuo, Mikko Piispa & Helena Huhta 2016

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