New report explains the decline in competitiveness in Finnish elite sports

Finland has a proud tradition of excellence in elite sports but within the last three decades, the country has experienced a radical decline in elite sports performance in both Olympic and Paralympic sports.

On behalf of the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, the Danish Institute for Sports Studies has worked with professor Klaus Nielsen from Birkbeck – University of London on an evaluation of the Finnish elite sports system to find explanations for the decline.

The evaluation is based on interviews and extensive data collection amongst many different stakeholders in Finnish elite sport and draws on the conceptual framework from the international SPLISS-study where the competitiveness of elite sports systems is assessed by analysing nine different areas within the sports system.

The evaluation report released today indicates that elite sport in Finland is affected by both cultural challenges and issues at the level of governance, organisation, and structure.

“The Finnish elite sports system is very complex, fragmented, and bureaucratic with unclear steering and division of labour. Also, there is too little communication between an army of diverse stakeholders which means that there no functional links between setting goals, strategy, implementation, and evaluation,” says Rasmus K. Storm, head of research at the Danish Institute for Sports Studies.

The challenges of setting goals for the accomplishments of Finnish elite athletes are further compounded by the Finnish national self-identity, which affects the perception of the legitimacy of elite sport.

“Our data shows that ethical norms and values in contemporary Finland constrain the willingness of political actors and commercial organisations to support elite sport both symbolically and economically,” says Klaus Nielsen.

Sport is important in Finnish society, and many Finns care deeply about how their athletes perform in international events, but at the same time Finnish society is marked by fear of not living up to certain ideas about their own self-identity. A situation that has affected the elite sports system for many years.

The backbone of Finnish national self-identity is the concept of ‘sisu’ which refers to the ability of individuals to push through unbearable challenges by drawing on determination, courage, guts, and will. ‘Sisu’ is embodied in ideal type figures such as elite athletes who can live up to and represent the Finnish national spirit.

It is, however, very shameful if a Finn cannot live up to the ideals embodied in this self-understanding and therefore Finns are reluctant to set goals that they may not be able to achieve. When Finnish cross-country skiers were caught doping at the World Championships in Nordic Skiing in Lathi in 2001, it was a scandal and shameful because the very symbols of the Finnish national spirit had to cheat in order to demonstrate ‘sisu’.

The consequence more broadly was a social reluctance to test ’sisu’ as a cultural phenomenon.

“Finns are very risk averse, and they find it difficult to set clear goals and later evaluate and sanction them, because they are afraid of failure. ‘Sisu’ is a ghost in the Finnish elite sport system and functions as a kind of cultural straitjacket. It is sad because in many ways, the Finns have everything it takes to be successful,” says Rasmus K. Storm.

The legitimacy of elite sport is also challenged by welfare state and equality concerns present in Finnish society. In addition, the legitimacy is actually or potentially challenged by new societal concerns such as climate change, human rights, gender issues, bullying, and (toxic) masculinity. Therefore, it is crucial to improve the legitimacy of elite sport in Finnish society.

The report recommends that the legitimacy of elite sport in Finnish society is strengthened through the development of explicit elite sports goals aligned with societal values and concerns such as good governance, sustainability, and ethics.

In addition, the report recommends a revision of the Elite Sports Act, and the creation of an organisational framework for ongoing dialogue between the elite sports system, the government, and relevant NGOs.

Download the report

Download the report Elite sports in Finland: External international evaluation:

For more information contact the authors

Head of Research, Danish Institute for Sports Studies, Rasmus K. Storm,
+45 29210974,

Professor Klaus Nielsen, Birkbeck, University of London, +44 7885594575,


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