All Finnish men, except one, like sports. They are willing to freeze in rickety open-air football stands, or suffocate inside looming ice hockey halls, or suffer a coronary infarct in their comfy chairs, as long as they can, preferably with a can of beer in hand and a hot dog in mouth, watch a few sweaty guys kicking a puck around.
All Finnish men, I think, except one. That one is me. It can be pretty hard. Let me give you an example. One schoolday many years ago I noticed something was amiss: the students were restless.
Well, that was not at all unusual at the lower high school (yläaste, or inferi infestus), but they were more restless than was usual. The buzz at the forbidden behind-the-corner smoking spot was louder; the loafers and loungers on the corridors were more agitated than usually.
Soon even I noticed the reason: our beloved principal announced that, due to the momentous occasion — and I held my breath: had they finally sent riot police to enforce our lessons? — due to the momentous occasion, classes were suspended for a while. Everyone seemed to know why except I, and everyone else flocked to the art class, which held the best television in the school. (Outside the teachers’ lounge, that is.) It was a sports match of some kind.
I failed to see the gravity of the situation.
After some browsing, I’m relatively certain it was one of those years when Finland bruised its way to the finals of the Ice Hockey World Championships; since it might have been one of those years when Finland lost, it could account for my hazy memory of a sudden spike in violent door-slamming and needless motorcyclette-engine-roaring afterwards.
Anyway, my recall of those events is a bit uncertain, for at least two reasons. The first is that lower high school is, in Finland, a pretty Verdun-ish experience: constant stress, and constant peer pressure to forget your good manners and behave in an uncivilized way. In Verdun, that was eating beans in poorly ventilated shelters and shooting at other people; in lower high, underage smoking, drinking, swearing and active hatred of intelligence and beauty. As years pass I’ve grown to tolerate the first three, but I still can’t stomach the mindless, baseless aggression against everything quiet, pretty or profound that seems to fester in the hearts of boys, aged 13 to 15, and some girls, of similar age.
The second reason for the haziness of my memory is, of course, that I don’t like sports. More to the point, I don’t like watching sports. That’s a pretty suicidal statement from a Finnish male, but I go even further: I loathe sports presented as entertainment, and I actively avoid all contact with or information about sports of any kind. (Two exceptions; I’ll return to them later.) When the radio starts to spew out sports news, I change the channel. If it is just a news story among nonsporty ones, I hum loudly and discordantly until it’s over.
“— millions dead. And here in Finland, something to balance it all. Our golden boy Bicep Cowhurler has won the seventh international athletic —”
“Humm humm humm! Mmm humm mm mm! Humm…”
“— landed in the audience, while Bicep’s mighty throw —”
Seriously. I have no interest in knowing whether one person can run a fixed length faster than some other, or throw a particular piece of lead further than someone else. And I care even less about people zooming around a ring in fast cars, and then being hailed as national heroes. I swear that if it ever comes to me leading a violent overthrow of the Finnish government, sports stars will be the first to be sent to re-education camps in Finnish Siberia, along with all Big Brother participants and most of the people from my lower high school days.
I might raise one statistically interested eyebrow if there was a grand competition in finding out which country could produce the best speed average in running, over various distances and a great range of runners. Ah well, that would lead to the same activity as that, back in my army days, of the company next to ours whenever the great Athletic Test Day loomed: suddenly all of its nonathletic privates injured themselves in ways that required such intensive hospital visits that they were quite unable to attend the Tests, or to lower the resulting averages, from which many an award of additional leaves depended. I don’t know if these hospital visits resulted from subtle peer pressure or from an actual burly quartermaster lounging at the top of a very steep flight of stairs.
“Sir Quartermaster sir!”
“Three steps backwards!”
“But sir —”
“Three steps backwards hut hop hut!”
“Yessir — step aaaagh step aaagh thump thump step aagh —”
Now again, I’m not very much against actual sports, as long as they don’t involve too much strutting and preening; that’s pretty repulsive. I don’t get any kicks from men stretching and running around in skintight tracksuits. (“Women, on the other hand…”, he leered, his eyes twinkling with obscene lust.) Sports are a good way of staying fit and healthy, or so I hear — I just don’t have time for everything, you know? — but I think they make pretty sickeningly dull entertainment.
“And here comes Tracky Skintight, and he runs, and he jumps, and it’s two meters five! And here comes Brian Less, and he runs, and he jumps, and it’s two meters five! And Natter Duckbrain, runs, jumps, and my goodness gracious, it’s two meters five! And here’s Yammer Peahead, two meters five!”
No, it’s even duller than that. The only part of sports that beguiles me is the slim possibility of grisly injuries — but even that is much too rare. Those injuries that happen can, though, be funny. Why, during a recent epic dull-fest a Finnish javelin-thrower made a slight misjudgment and hit, instead of the field, a misplaced French long jumper.
I was ecstatic on hearing the news but why, since it was a stupid mistake and not even a life-threating injury, why was everyone else so shocked? Why the apologies? Why the wondering if the javelin-thrower ever recovers? These things happen, you know! We humans can’t build aeroplanes that are sure to stay up, so why is everyone so agog when one of us can’t even throw a stick where he intended? I think most of the people involved failed to see the immense comedy inherent in the situation.
“Do I gets ekstra points vor that! Vere ist he runnink? Do tey measure my results vrom vhere he stops, yes?”
Watching sports is dull. I’m all for people doing whatever they want, be it writing novels about the life of fleas or watching paint dry, but this kind of a tedium-fest should be confined solely to television and radio channels of its own to spare all nice channel-surfers from the brain-atrophying zen-nonentertainment of it all.
If you have to have sports on TV and in the radio, at least give us interesting sports. Make long jumpers compete under a constant hail of javelins! Give us javelin duels — two stringy guys lobbing sharp sticks at each other from the distance of sixty meters until one cries Uncle — or better still, five teams of men on small bases twenty yards apart, throwing spears, put-shots, hammers and discuses at each other until there’s only one team left. They could then pole-vault over a pit of spikes to a rotating arena, strap on skies and fit skates to their hands, and then fight, otherwise naked, to death; then you could give the winner a medal and a small house somewhere!
Man, every Finnish male would watch that, even I. That would be entertainment.
One more tangent. There are two sports which I cannot resist. That’s not a big deal, because there are very, very rarely seen in TV. These two sports are strongman contests and sumo wrestling. The first is a borderline sport, not quite, really, actually a sport at all, but not so clearly and farly out as, say, Finnish-style wife carrying or rubber boot hurling, or endurance sauna bathing. (All Finnish non-sports.) There’s some insane nobility in sweaty, brawny men pulling trucks, getting groin pulls by hauling immense steel marbles, and tottering away under the weight of concrete harnesses. My first reaction to most sports broadcasts is “Who on earth would watch this voluntarily — by Richard, don’t tell me they’re going to kick that ball around for another hour?”; with strongman contests it is “Who on earth would do this voluntarily?” — and this, as opposed to the first, is a happy, positive comment of mine. If my first thought is of heroes of insanity rather than of villains of mental decrepitude, I’m in!
And sumo wrestling I watch because it’s the only sport where I can identify with the competitors, okay?