They train horses, don’t they?


After the acceptance of women, homosexuals and disabled people as bona fide athletes, it might come as something of a surprise to note that discrimination still exists in the world of sport.

In March 1865, harness racing ushered in the era of modern sport in Finland, as demonstrated by a number of studies. Government-sponsored races on frozen lakes were hugely popular festivals throughout the nineteenth century; the newspapers were awash with pre-race stories, race reports and meticulously recorded results. All human sports, including skiing, rowing and running lagged behind harness racing by at least two decades.

In March 2015, however, no gala dinners were held, no statues were unveiled, and no commemorative books were published. The 150th anniversary of Finnish sport passed totally unnoticed.

What might account for the oversight? Why should our understanding of sport be subservient to crude anthropocentrism? Does it matter whether the participants of a given contest make use of four instead of two legs?

An anthropocentric view of sport is, of course, a relatively recent innovation. One hundred years ago, no self-respecting observer would have dared to dissociate equine athletes from their human counterparts. Insofar as Finland is concerned, I’m partial to the theory that the downgrading of horse racing got underway soon after 1928, the landmark year when the lawmakers approved betting on trotters. Meanwhile, Olympic officialdom jealously protected human athletes from being tainted by monetary rewards.

The 1928 decision was not devoid of ludicrous consequences. I’m old enough to remember the bad old days when horse racing reports were not recognized as sport news by any Finnish daily. They were considered local or, at best, national news well into the 1980s. (A bumper harvest expected! Charme Asserdal triumphed again! Health care fees contested!).

While the amateur illusion dissipated a while ago and sport pages no longer scorn horsey matters, equine athletes still suffer from discriminatory measures. In 2012, for example, the Finnish Sport Journalists Association ruled that only humans qualify for the Athlete of the Year vote. Otherwise Brad de Veluwe, the Finnish-bred sensation of the year, would have been the runaway winner.

How could the journalists discount a national hero and world record holder who had surpassed one million euros in earnings? For all I know, they might have been influenced by T. A. Cook’s frivolous remark in his 1901 History of the English Turf: ‘If speech were not denied them we should no doubt be able to elicit some very interesting opinions on the subject of modern racing from our four-legged friends.’

As I’m not comfortable about trespassing on philosophical terrain, I should probably abstain from any further commentary. Suffice to say that the famously taciturn human athlete Paavo Nurmi, too, seemed to be deprived of the gift of speech.


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