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Where are the champions of women’s and girls’ sport in Finland?

November 8, 2016

My eyes have been opened over the last few years with regards to how little attention is paid to women’s and girls’ sport in Finland.

Recently the media made light of Teemu Selänne’s “return to daycare” as a “godfather” (he was once a daycare teacher, before he made hockey his life). What I couldn’t help noticing is the glaring lack of GIRLS in any of the pictures that have been taken while he’s been hanging out with the kids.

In the article, he gives some advice, one piece of it being: “Be an example.” Well the media has to do a far better job of regularly presenting Finland’s sporting women as examples.

As the mother of a girl involved in sport, I’ve only recently (in the last year or so) come to understand how little we see of Finnish sporting women being presented as role models for girls. I know they’re out there, but where?

In many cases they are among the best in the world at what they do! Let’s see…

  • Susanna Tapani (a member of both Finland’s national teams for ringette and hockey)
  • Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (and virtually every other member of the women’s national cross-country skiing team)
  • Kaisa Mäkkäräinen (biathlon, 61 podium finishes at the World Cup level, including 19 victories)
  • Mira Potkonen (the only Finn to win a medal at the Rio Summer Olympic Games)
  • Amanda Kotaja (one of Finland’s best female athletics Paralympians)
  • Lotta Lepistö (who won a bronze medal in cycling at the recent Road World Championships in Qatar)
  • Emma Terho (former Finnish National Hockey Team player, now sitting on the board of the Finnish Hockey Association)
  • Saara Niemi (former Finnish National Hockey team member, now the Development Director for girls’ hockey in Finland)
  • Nooralotta Neziri (a current standout on the track and field scene in 100m hurdles)
  • Wilma Murto (an up and coming standout in women’s pole vault)
  • Petra Olli (the first female wrestler to win a World Championship medal, silver in 2015)

A lot of these women make headlines, but only when they seem to do something significant in the eyes of the sporting press.

Plus there are women in team sports blazing trails along the way: Marjukka Virta, Anna-Kaisa Raesola, Pauliina Ojala and three others who have played 500 or more games in the national league in ringette. Riikka Noronen has played more than 500 hockey games at the national league level. Surely there are remarkable milestones like these in other women’s sports in Finland, but why haven’t we heard about them?

We rarely hear about any women’s team sports in the press. The Little Miss plays handball – it’s a whole world of its own, primarily played by Swedish speaking Finns – and we never hear about it. I love handball – love watching it anyways.

How about some more press for the women who play basketball, volleyball, ringette, hockey, soccer, floorball? Where is it – or am I missing something? I wrote about my involvement in the World Ringette Championships which were held in Helsinki at the turn of the year. Unfortunately, they were very much overshadowed by the World Junior Hockey Championships which were also in town at the same time. The Finnish junior hockey team got themselves on a stamp for winning… So why didn’t Finland’s senior national ringette team get a stamp too? They also hold the title of “World Champion.” I even gave feedback to Posti, expressing my exasperation. Their answer: We made the stamp based on popularity and current trends. Hmph!

Team Finland and Team Canada at the World Ringette Championships

Team Finland and Team Canada at the World Ringette Championships

I attended a business and sporting event in Helsinki that was held during the recent World Cup of Hockey that was played in Canada. Looking back I think there were less than five women in the crowd. The presentations felt a little exclusive, especially the one by a charity that has focused on involving disadvantaged people in sports. There were no pictures of women in the presentation… And when I made that remark to a friend of mine, he responded by saying that the girls were watching – or something like that. I was too annoyed to record his response.

There is hope on this front. Back in October – finally – and for the first time ever (that I have noticed) there was a sports event put on by Monaliiku that focused on integrating immigrant refugee women into the sporting world in Finland. It’s. About. Time. By all reports on Facebook, the event was a success and will be organized again next year.

A couple weeks ago on Twitter, some people I follow were posting bits of information from a sports seminar being held in Finland. Men and mainstream team sports like hockey and soccer get the lion’s share of sports funding in Finland, women and the lesser known sports (even where Finland has a world champion – for example, Matti Suur-Hammari, men’s para snowboarding) get very little. One of the development points for all sport in the country is to get more women coaches into the fold. Will it happen? Some of the attendees seemed to think so, because the request has come from the athletes themselves.

As a ringette coach, it’s been interesting to see how many men are among the legions of devoted coaches in ringette, quite often DADS because their daughters are involved in the sport. One of the development goals in ringette (2014-2018) is to get more women into head coaching roles. Currently the head coaches of the Finnish senior and junior ringette teams are men, as are the assistants. While success of the teams has been tied to terrific coaching over the years, it’s time to get some women lined up when the change of the guard comes.

Girls Hockey Day – where are the champions for that? I’d like to see some big names of men’s hockey in this country supporting the girls, they deserve it!

On the hockey front I did make a bold prediction earlier this year. Finland’s women’s hockey program (as will others) will be on par with Canada and the US in about 10 years. Why? Girls are finally getting the attention and the coaching they deserve. They’re on the ice longer and there is definitely more focus on developing players that have multi-skill sets that come from other sports. Kids in sport here are encouraged to do different sports that are unrelated to one another and that’s a good thing.

The end of the year brings annual reviews and in Finland, the race for Finland’s athlete of the year. While the candidates have not yet been announced, there’s a sure bet that some of Finland’s best sporting women will be on that list. Will the Finnish sports writers stand up and give them the honour they deserve? Well, I think that Leo-Pekka Tähti deserves to be Finland’s athlete of the year for 2016, but that’s another story.

P.S. I will be visiting this topic again…

(Update November 11) P.S.S. This entry has also been published (with permission) on the website of the Female Coaching Network.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 10, 2016 9:48 am

    Good post, totally agree – except, no mention of Noora Räty? I agree coverage should be more even in the media but come on. She is doing a lot to promote women’s hockey in Finland. I guess your point is the media doesn’t need help covering her but she is a champion of women’s hockey so I think it should be part of the conversation…

    • November 10, 2016 10:07 am

      Indeed, Noora Räty too! So many athletes to list and yes, she should have been on my radar. Thanks for the call out!

  2. June 1, 2017 7:18 pm

    I’ve just shared your post, and commented: “Very glad to see someone else is saying this, … I’ve always, simply, been wowed by their hockey skills, skating, teamwork and athleticism. Yet the average attendance for their games is ridiculous, considering the level at which they play. Going by this article, it’s a similar picture across most Finnish sport – the women’s side gets little attention, sometimes none at all. Just don’t understand it, for a country which in most respects beats everyone for gender equality.” To explain, I’ve been visiting Finland for some years, and these days I tend to organise my trips around fixtures. Still hugely impressed by these amazing and highly dedicated athletes. It’s a great game, and quite distinct from the men’s variety, though that’s great too.

    • June 2, 2017 6:54 am

      Thank you Mark for chiming in. And thanks also for sharing my post – it needs to be said again and again. This is on my radar for further coverage. I am (hopefully) just getting started…

      • June 4, 2017 2:34 am

        Kiitos… I’d just like to add that I’ve seen most of the hockey players you mention play (not sure about Saara Niemi) and they are indeed outstanding, worthy of the highest recognition. Emma is a little slower these days, but her uncanny reading of the game/positioning sense is still all there. And as for Susanna Tapani… her priority is ringette really, isn’t it? But she transforms a hockey team if she’s able to play. I’ve been kind of annoyed more than once to see her turn up on the opposing team! And Riikka Noronen, huge respect for her. A lot of the top players are currently on contracts with Swedish teams, and others are with US colleges, even so, there are still a lot of fantastic players worth going to see in any of the top league teams in Finland.

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