An examination of the Nordic model of welfare and physical culture, reviewed by someone who’s been there, done that

Joe Piggin
Loughborough University

Mikkel B. Tin, Frode Telseth, Jan Ove Tangen & Richard Giulianotti (eds)
The Nordic Model and Physical Culture
255 pages, hardcover, ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2020 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-0-367-33500-7

In reviewing this book I must acknowledge I am not impartial. In my pre-pandemic travels, I was enamoured, entranced and captivated by the physical landscapes of the Nordic countries. Of course, these experiences occurred in the warm summer sunshine hours, and I have yet to experience the winter activities that Nordic nations are known for. In Uppsala, Sweden, it was lake swimming. In Bergen, Norway it was hill walking. In Helsinki, Finland it was urban running. In Copenhagen, Denmark it was cycling, albeit cycling between cafes. (Apologies to Iceland, we will meet one day when the volcanoes and viruses are less volatile). These outdoor physical activity experiences were immersive, liberating and fulfilling. So as a New Zealander, living in a large city in the UK, and having tolerated six months of various pandemic-related restrictions, I do pine for the great outdoors of “the North”.

Such fleeting visits as I made do not necessarily allow a traveller to develop in-depth knowledge about the politics, the culture and values of communities of a region. This book, The Nordic Model and Physical Culture edited by Professors Mikkel Tin, Frode Telseth, Jan Ove Tangen and Richard Giulianotti helps to fill in these gaps. The book usefully begins by framing the discussion, placing moving bodies (or people) at the centre of concern. It is the social dynamics which contribute to, and emanate from, active interactions that are of interest, as distinct from physiological or biomechanical concerns. The concept of “physical culture” is large and inclusive, defined early on as “a variety of bodily practices sharing a number of cultural features”. In turn physical culture reflects “an entire ideological regime, including institutions and societal priorities.” And it is this interplay between individual action (or activity), and societal forces, cultures and pressures which is investigated throughout. The goal of the book it to connect the Nordic model (including explanations of states’ manifestations of freedom, rights, and welfare through redistribution) with physical culture. What exactly does this political, economic and social model of organising mean for physical culture in these countries?

Addressing the aim of the book is helped by organising chapters around three themes – education, sports, and public space, which of course overlap at time by necessity. Within these three guiding themes, a wide variety of academic theories and perspectives are used to inform the analysis of physical culture.

The chapters are an eclectic mixture, as they need to be. Since physical culture pervades most aspects of life, it would be impossible to cover these comprehensively in one volume which already covers five different (albeit all “Nordic”) nations. The chapters are best considered as deep dives into specific settings and lived experiences, rather than encyclopaedic explanations. For example, insight is offered into the Nordic education system and culture through studies ranging from Finnish school sport policy, to the changing discursive articulations of nature in Norway. Nature, it seems was once ‘nationalised’, and has become ‘medicalised’ for different societal goals. The variety continues in the two next chapters on dance in Denmark and Norway, where readers will learn about the local particularities in passing on dance knowledge across generations and will also see common educational issues (and possibilities) which transcend national boundaries.

They immerse the reader in the “friluftsliv”, or outdoor life and outdoor living which needs to be negotiated, managed, promoted and preserved in various ways.

Many of the chapters are organised by explicitly stating their specific research focus, with sections on how empirical research was conducted. This is the case in the section dedicated to sport, where qualitative research is used to give voice to the participants, and insight is offered into the contested discourses that are imposed on young people playing sport. Again, the pressures on young Swedish sport participants examined in this chapter might resonate with an international readership. In Chapter 6, the reader is catapulted across time and space, across the Norwegian Sea, and transported one thousand years ago into the Saga Age. This chapter, specifically dedicated to Icelandic physical culture illuminates a country which continues to be shaped by both local and international values. The authors fairly note that the concept of physical culture as we understand it today did not exist in Saga Age Iceland. Historical examples are offered of cultural values and practices which informed and continue to affect Icelandic society.

While it might be easy to think homogenously about Nordic physical culture, the chapter on the Finnish sport system reminds us that “the past, present and future of the sports movement has stood apart from the other Nordic countries”. In particular, distinctions are made in terms of funding and organising principles, and the point is made that the idea of sport for all has been buried under an agenda of elite sport in Finland. This theme will also resonate with readers around the world. The following chapter on elite sport examines the interplay between cultural values of elite sport and national values with Norway and Nordic countries in general. This interplay and moreover, the tensions involved in sport, are further displayed in the next chapter where scandal in elite sport have led audiences and fans to reflect on what they have been watching and supporting.

The physical terrain and challenging climate which Nordic people live with are well represented. At various times in the book, authors refer to winters as being “harsh” and “long and dark”. It is likely these conditions have contributed to the Nordic model in some way. Throughout history, communities will have needed to cooperate and share in cold and dark periods. The chapters on public space and physical culture illuminate the natural world and how it is inhabited in the region. They immerse the reader in the “friluftsliv”, or outdoor life and outdoor living which needs to be negotiated, managed, promoted and preserved in various ways. The next two chapters on nature and water experiences helpfully include imagery to guide the reader who might be unfamiliar with specific contexts. This continues in the chapter on parks and physical culture, which are clearly spaces which are also negotiated and contested in various ways.

Does the edited volume achieve its aim of connecting the Nordic model with physical culture? I would say yes. At times this is done by intense and immersive description and interrogation, and at times this is conveyed more through overviews. The themes of education, sport and public space are well chosen and the case studies and research presented is articulated well. Two aspects of physical culture which would have been interesting to learn more about included cycling (as active transport and as leisure), and ocean water use (such as sailing). Of course, not everything can be included in one book.

Professors Tin, Telseth, and Tangen introduced the book by mentioning the threat of neo-liberalism to the Nordic model and noted that each day “the Nordic countries yield a little more to their international commitments and alliances”. Professor Richard Giulianotti concluded the edited volume by considering three possibilities for the future of the Nordic model. After reading this book I say that of course cultural diversity is important, and beyond this, I endorse a future where Nordic ideals about welfare, ecological protection and egalitarianism are promoted around the world. Confronted by a global pandemic, a climate emergency, human rights abuses and extreme inequality, we could all be helped with some more “lagom”.

Copyright © Joe Piggin 2020

Table of Content

Introduction: The Nordic model and physical culture
Mikkel B. Tin, Frode Telseth, Jan Ove Tangen

Part I: Education

    1. Creating new sport policy: The case of Finnish Schools on the Move
      Kati Lehtonen and Kaarlo Laine
    2. Nature in the history of physical education and in the lives of Norwegians today
      Pål Augestad
    3. Let’s move: Embodiment, leadership, and dance in education
      Helle Winther
    4. Exploring democratic relations in higher dance education: A case study
      Gunn Engelsrud and Camilla Myhre

Part II: Sports

    1. Changing constructions of childhood challenging the Swedish sport model: ‘Football was for fun – I exercise for my health’
      Susanna Hedenborg
    2. The roots of Icelandic physical culture and sport in the Saga Age
      Thorolfur Thorlindsson and Vidar Halldorsson 
    3. The Finnish sport system in transition: From a mixed model back to the Nordic sport movement?
      Kati Lehtonen and Jarmo Mäkinen
    4. Discourses on the legitimate understanding of Norwegian and Nordic elite sport: Theoretical reflections on an empirical case
      Nils Asle Bergsgard and Frode Telseth
    5. The Johaug doping case: Public reactions and sociological explanations
      Jan Ove Tangen and Bieke Gils

Part III: Public Space

    1. Scandinavian friluftsliv (outdoor life) and the Nordic model: Passions and paradoxes
      Kirsti Pedersen Gurholt and Per Ingvar Haukeland
    2. Nature is the new culture: The active body as a citizen typology on the rise
      Even Smith Wergeland
    3. Water competence and new Norwegians: Outdoor teaching as an inclusive-exclusive learning space
      Egil Galaaen Gjølme, Jon Sundan, Tone Pernille Østern, and Sunniva Hovde
    4. Public parks in the North: Designed to liberate or discipline our moving bodies?
      Mikkel B. Tin

Afterword: The Nordic model and physical cultures in the global context
Richard Giulianotti


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