domingo, 24 de junio de 2012

Carnival of Pihtipudas: Passing on the Tradition

“Every time I throw and see, after a beautiful arch, the implement hit the ground more than 70 metres away, I feel as if I am united with my forefathers' land. There are no words to describe how proud I am of being a Finn.” (1)

Tero Pitkamaki in company of some of the young members of the 2012 Pihtipudas Javelin School

In the opening years of the 21st Century, technology and communications meteoric development, together with multinational companies’ expansion have brought to a global world with increasingly standardised citizens. However there are still traditions that remain untouched. One of them is the legendary passion for javelin throw in the country of Finland. Javelin is one of the few Olympic sports not originated in the British Isles. Indeed, it had been documented in Antique Greece yet it is particularly strongly deep-rooted in Nordic European countries. Some date back this tradition to Sami hunting ancestral custom while others do it to the supposed connexion between Finns and Old Hun warriors, but it also makes sense to consider the influence of Sweden, former conqueror of Finland, which owns records of javelin competitions already in the 18th Century. (2) Nevertheless it is eventually its deep forests, frozen lakes and harsh climate which mould Finnish personality and its attachment to sports like the javelin. The vast emptiness of this land of magic and mystery, which once inspired the national epic poem “Kalevala” and Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”, has somehow being internalised and made a vital part of people’s character. (3) “We like to be alone” says a fervent javelin fan. And the practise of a sport which is strong, primal and solitary is the perfect manifestation of this idiosyncrasy. Chris Turner, a mythic journalist which travelled for years all along the country to find the secret of this passion of an entire nation, got to describe it once in very accurate words: “Long dark winters and short glorious summers have produced the archetypal strong but silent national character. The javelin suits the Finns, providing an emotional release for all their pent-up feelings. It is the dual release of spear and emotion…” (1)  Those gigantic roars while throwing the implement are a mechanism of liberation of internal emotions and they are also an innate way of communicate with their ancestors. No wonder in a local competition a prize is awarded to the greatest roar, no matter where the javelin goes. In the view of Sociology emeritus professor Paavo Seepanen “the javelin throw is a model of an individual pursuit which does not need much equipment or facilities. In the countryside, any small boy could make a rudimentary birch or alder javelin and throw it in any open field. Throwing things - along with lifting stones, putting shots, wrestling arms, climbing trees, etc - has always been part of Finnish physical exercise tradition.” (1)          

A female competitor in Pihtipudas throws the javelin with the classic Finnish style, her body arched like a bow
 Indeed since very early Finland made a name in the javelin throw discipline. In 1891 in Stockholm, a young student of pharmacy, Hjalmar Fellman became the first national athlete to beat the rest of the world, which he did in standing position as it was then the rule. Sweden dominated at the Olympic Games in the first two editions the event was held in 1908 and 1912, thanks to the great Erik Lemming, but Finland swept the podium, in the latter date, at the only Olympic appearance of the two-handed javelin, which consisted in throwing alternatively with left and right hands. The champion Juha Saaristo managed an average of 61.00m, superior to the winning throw of Lemming (60.64) in the more orthodox specialty. Jonni Myyrä emulated the Swede ace with two Olympic titles in the event in 1920 and 1924. In the first of those gold medals, in Antwerp, his country accomplished an incredible 1-2-3-4, which stands as one of the defining moments of Finnish sport. Those were the years the likes of Paavo Nurmi would bring national pride and identity to a nation which had only recently proclaimed its independence. Yet unlike the “Flying Finns” which star faded one day not being able anymore to face the formidable African athletes, Finnish success in the javelin has had a stunning continuation until our days. Besides a way of providing national glory and sense of community, sport allowed early on its foremost practitioners, mainly country boys, to climb up the social ladder and obtain a source of revenues. Nurmi’s track career was the firm background for his future success as a business man and building contractor. Also, despite amateurism, Yrjo Nikkanen, whose world record of 78.70m from 1938 stood for 15 years told a journalist, many years after his retirement, he sometimes earned “an equivalent of an army officer's monthly wages in one meet” as an under-the-table payment -and there were many meets like that during the summer. (1)
Often has been said javelin throw is in Finland an affair of “muscular farming boys” so the legendary Matti Järvinen, Olympic champion in 1932 and 11 times world record holder, once wrote a  throw “takes absolutely all the power available in your body, even if for a flash of the moment only”. (1) However, javelin discipline does not only demands physical strength but also an intricate technique, excellent sense of rhythm and coordination, endurance and explosiveness. Järvinen was precisely the man who helped define this difficult combination, a perfect technician and the first athlete who trained in a way which would be recognised by today’s experts. Järvinen influenced largely the new generations of javelin throwers in Finland. For many decades, there has been a quite characteristic Finnish school’s way of casting the implement: the athlete arches its body to resemble a string of a bow, with the throwing motion taking place straight above the bracing leg.
     With well established standards in the sport, excellent coaching and great champions who act as stunning role models for enthusiastic new generations, in a country where half of his five million of inhabitants reportedly watch their heroes’ performances at great championships, Finland has kept itself in the top of the sport for more than a century now. We must also consider its excellent infrastructures, including indoor facilities which are used for competition and training during the long Finnish winter. For example, the recently retired Mikaela Ingberg, a former World and European medallist, stated these kind of halls, like the one in Vaasa, were a key tool in her preparation for great challenges: “The javelin is a very technical event and it is really difficult if you cannot see the flight of the javelin as that tells you a lot about whether you hit it right.” (4) Passing on the tradition, four other men: Tapio Rautavaara (1948), Pauli Nevala (1964), Arto Härkönen (1984) and Tapio Korjus (1988) have succeeded in the top of the Olympic podium to pioneers Myyrä and Järvinen. Overall, Finland has collected 21 medals out of 69 awarded in the history of the Games in the event, almost a third of the total. Not really bad for a small country of scarcely five millions of people. Their female counterparts have not been as successful, yet they count with one Olympic champion, Helli Rantanen in 1990, besides two minor medallists. At world level, Finns have been equally impressive with Seppo Räty (1987), Kimmo Kinnunen (1991), Aki Parviainen (1999) and Tero Pitkämäki (2007), in the men’s field and Tiina Lillak (1983) in the women’s, all of them gold medallists in the brief history of the championships. 

A group of boys having fun during their stretching exercices in Pihtipudas
The 2008 Olympic year marked the sensational come of age of arguably one of the best Finnish generations ever in the javelin, formed by the three athletes who had swept the medals at the 2003 European Junior Championships: Teemu Wirkkala, Antti Ruuskanen and Tero Järvenpää. Along with the man who had brought gold for Finland in Osaka, Tero Pitkämäki, they accomplished a remarkable collective performance in Beijing, being Pitkämäki third, Järvenpää fourth and Wirkkala fifth. With the addition of Ari Mannio, the world junior silver medallist in 2006 and also European junior champion in 2009, Finland was expected to dominate in subsequent major championships. Yet it did not. With some of its foremost athletes (Pitkämäki, Järvenpää, Wirkkala) plagued by injuries and Ruuskanen and Mannio not quite consistent when it matters, no Finnish athlete made Daegu’s top-8. Tero Pitkämäki, the most beloved sportsman in the country of the moment had played too often second fiddle to archrival and friend Andreas Thorkildsen of Norway but this time around it was more than that: in huge crisis of form and confidence and also with health issues, the Finnish number one decided to go to the Czech Republic looking for the assistance of Jan Zelezny, the coach who is responsible of the solid careers of Barbora Spotakova, Vitezlav Vesely and Petr Frydrych. However, while Vesely has shown impressive form this year, Tero had not reached yet the 80m barrier prior to the test of Pihtipudas, the last qualifying meet for the upcoming European Championship, which happen to be at home. Another disappointment could mean the inevitable decay, the end of the career of the Finnish national hero. Nonetheless, in spite of its inability to shine in the last major championships, Finland still keeps its amazing usual depth in the javelin event. Which country can boast of entering in a local meet as Pihtipudas no less than 10 national athletes who have thrown beyond 83m in the last couple of years? Although two of them withdrew in the last moment, still the field was mighty enough.  
The Javelin Carnival of Pihtipudas, which this year was exceptionally held between the 14th and 17th June, has become the most important meeting in the charged Finnish javelin calendar and an unavoidable date for every national athlete of world level. The meeting often serves also as the decisive outing to decide the national team for major championships. Yet the Carnival of Pihtipudas is much more than that. It is the biggest festival of the javelin in the world, in which annually present and former stars of the discipline and youngsters from all over Finland and from some guest countries meet to learn, compete and fraternize in an almost tribal celebration. Pihtipudas, a small village of 4500 inhabitants in centre Finland, 140km North of Jyväskylä, among pine forests and surrounded by 140 lakes, it is the ideal place where the javelin centennial tradition is passed on to the new generations. Home country of the famous professor Lauri Tahko Pihkala, the inventor of Pesäpallo, the Finnish variant of Baseball, Pihtipudas also host a Javelin Museum, the only of its kind in the world. (5)            

A coach shows a young participant in Pihtipudas school of javelin the right way to grip the spear
The festival started spontaneously when local athletes Leo Pusa and Jorma Kinnunen in 1971 came with the idea of holding a competition in Pihtipudas so they invited some friend athletes to join them. Because there were no other meetings during that weekend, most of the finest javelin throwers in Finland showed up. (6) 1000 spectators assisted to the contest, where Tapio Rautavaara, Olympic gold medallist in London 1948 was the commentator. It was a brilliant success and the organisers decided to continue hosting the competition in the years to come. Three years later women entered for the first time the outing. Then in 1975 was held for the first time the javelin school, with 28 youngsters taking part. The idea was to show the teens how to throw and how to train for the discipline. Over the years more and more people have participated in the javelin school. Currently about 200 teens from the age of 9 come to learn the basis of the specialty, divided in groups depending on their age and sex. There are an increasing number of foreign guests coming from Latvia, Sweden, USA and the United Kingdom. Some of them compete with notable success as British Olympic hopeful Laura Whittingham, winner at the 22-year age category and last year in the senior contest. Competition, including a Paralympics event, coaching and lectures alternate in the four days of the Carnival of Javelin which is closed Sunday with the TV broadcasted senior competition.
Lodgement and food are provided and included in the entry fee. The accommodation is on exercise mats on classroom floors with communal showers in the changing rooms. Dining is refectory-style four times a day. Additional accommodation is possible in nearby hotels and holiday chalets. (7) There is a great atmosphere with attendance of the whole family and even younger siblings can become involved whenever a spear is spotted unattended. Yet many experts are around so very few accidents occur. To the success of the Carnival contributes that many Finnish top names in the javelin like Jorma Kinnunen, Hannu Siitonen, Tapio Korjus, Tiina Lillak, Tuula Laaksalo or Latvian legend Janis Lusis volunteer to guide the young generations. In the last editions the director of the meeting has been Hannu Kangas, national javelin responsible and also lifelong coach of Pitkämäki. Since the school was created many of the future stars of the javelin have had the experience of participating in it at a younger age as are the cases of Kimmo Kinnunen, Heli Rantanen, Aki Parviainen, Mikaela Inberg, Harri Haatainen, Tero Pitkämäki and Lassi Etelätalo. Succession is thus guaranteed for many years.   

This year the Javelin Carnival of Pihtipudas ended with the happy return to winning days of celebrated local star Tero Pitkämäki. The world champion in Osaka produced a best attempt of 83.87, thus assuring his selection for the European Champs team. Ari Mannio, Lassi Etelätalo, Teemu Wirkkala and Antti Ruuskanen finished after the winner in this order, all of them beyond the 80m barrier. Mannio and Wirkkala were given the other two spots for Helsinki. In the female field, after some lacklustre years without valid relay for the likes of Mikaela Ingberg and Paula Tarvainen, some talented teenagers seem to be in the way for future international stardom. Sanni Utriainen the world junior champion in Moncton, who this season has broken the national junior record with a sensational 59.31m, grabbed the victory in Pihtipudas. Other youngster standouts as 2011 European U-23 bronze medallist Oona Sormunen and Jenni Kangas, daughter of the national coach and Pihtipudas director, were absent. Good luck for all of them at the European Championships and the Olympics.