As far as national stereotypes go, binge drinking and javelin throwing are highly valued pastimes in Finland. No wonder a Finnish tabloid’s front page recently featured two javelin throwers toasting a ‘double’ with beer (Ilta-Sanomat, 18 August 2014). The mighty muscle men had medaled at the European Athletics Championships held in Zürich, a feat which immediately called for a pint – or several pints, the athletes being perfectly normal Finns.
Of course, athletes from all over the world have indulged in alcohol ever since the notion of athletic superiority was invented. The media, too, has always played a part in promoting drinking culture; one only needs to recall the ritualized podium activities in motor sport. Yet today’s unfettered attention lavished on alcohol-driven celebrations is something completely new. Any kind of sporting achievement tends to culminate with a mediated attempt at instant intoxication.
In Finland, journalists have avidly contributed to sport-related drinking for about two decades. The complicity commenced with ice hockey, the most popular sport in Finland, and team sports still dominate the so-called drinking charts.
The mediated boozing game can be summarized as follows. Once a team has finished a tournament and/or earned a trophy, the players are presented with an urgent query: ‘How are you going to celebrate your achievement?’ Alternatively, journalists just ask, ‘When will you start celebrating?’ If the interview is broadcast on TV, the conspiratorial winks and nudges can be appreciated by a wider audience. Celebration, you see, carries a specific meaning in this context. You go to sauna, reach for the six-pack and stay put until you pass out.
What might account for the massive media interest in sport-related drinking? Stereotypical thinking aside, I don’t pretend to have discovered a uniquely Finnish phenomenon. Although a recent International Review for the Sociology of Sport special issue on sport and alcohol (3–4/2014) failed to address this particular topic, I remain hopeful that incisive analyses will soon shed light on the ubiquitous adulation of alcohol use.
Ironically, a few generations ago athletics and abstinence still rhymed and sport was touted as an antidote for alcoholism. In many countries, including Finland, propagandists of sport declared themselves as teetotalers and devised grandiose anti-alcohol crusades. Athletes, for their part, had no choice but to oblige.
A case in point is Hannes Kolehmainen, the triple gold medalist at the 1912 Stockholm games. Kolehmainen was not only the first Finnish athlete of international stature; he was also the most illustrious advocate of abstinence in his native country. Tellingly, one of his children became disenchanted with sport owing to the curious scenes she witnessed as a child. Many of Kolehmainen’s visitors were well-known athletes, but as soon as the national heroes were out of the public eye, they lit up and shared a drink with the jovial host.
Ultimately, I guess, one shouldn’t get overly agitated by boozing athletes or their media representations. As a Finnish bon mot puts it, the youth are better off drinking and doing sports instead of only drinking.